Occupy Sexism

2011 was a year where the world changed, visibly and suddenly, in a way that most of us have never before seen in our lifetimes. From the Arab Spring across the Middle East, from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya, to the protests across Europe and the Occupy movement beginning in New York and spreading all over the world, millions of people who didn’t have a voice or a say stood up and changed the way things worked in the world.

It’s still too early to judge what the effect of these in the long run will be, whether the system over the world will change, how the new governments that replaced the old dictators will do. But ultimately, that’s probably not the only metric by which they should be judged. It could easily be argued that the legacy of these worldwide protests in the year 2011 could be summed up in the following words by one of the protesters in Egypt:

“In the end,” Wael Nawara says, “things will turn out all right, because the relationship between people and authority has changed forever. People discovered that they can change and stop authority from going too far. That self-discovery changes everything. They learned they can replace a ruler. That’s the revolution.”[1]

To phrase it simply, all of these have shown us the power that people have nowadays.

Between almost everyone of teen or adult age having a cell phone, to Wikipedia letting us getting information about anything, to Facebook and Twitter allowing for quick communication between millions, an increasingly connected world is one where the good intentions of the everyday person gets increasingly closer to catching up to the might of the media and politics owned by the powerful few in a way that wasn’t possible even five years ago.

It’s created a generation growing up with the mindset that, much like Wikipedia has content created by ordinary people across the globe that corrects itself to show accuracy, or protests organized through Facebook and Twitter connects people who couldn’t have carried out any revolutions on their own can now connect and collectively brainstorm, where ideas aren’t created and followed through from a single authority but a good idea pops up and then becomes viral, spreading organically, growing stronger and being adapted to different situations like an open-source program.

And now, people are starting to take advantage, to tackle various injustices and issues through the impact a good message can have.

Having laid the groundwork with the idea that the world has shown us, now, that we have the power to change things drastically and how to go about it, I’d like to move on to the main point- a cause that should be a major issue but is so neglected, and shouldn’t stay that way. Namely, rape and sexual violence in society. It’s almost frighteningly prevalent. Various statistics seem to collate the number that about one in every six women have been raped at one point in their lives[2]. About one in every seven college girls have suffered the same crime[2].

Numbers staring out from a page doesn’t quite have as much power as they should, but just try imagining what it’s like living with that kind of statistic, especially for you male readers out there or people who believe the war for female equality has been completely settled. As a friend of mine once told me, “One in every six. If I have five friends that’s saying statistically that could easily be one of us.” And from among the people you know, probably already is. If you’re a guy just try imagine how you’d feel if you knew that you had a 15% chance of being stabbed, for example. You’d afraid going to your car in a deserted lot. You’d be nervous going home at night in a cab. When you hear about dictatorships or old Communist states where activists ‘disappear’ for expressing a different opinion, and think about the horror of living somewhere you’d always have to worry and watch your step every moment- imagine that. Having to live with fear isn’t a free and just world, and a world where this continues is not one where the fight for female equality has been won and should just be neglected. That’s what the scope of the problem is right now.

And only like a 10% of those girls report it to the police[2]. Only 1% end up getting to pressing charges[2]. And even from those, more than half the time the rapist is acquitted[2]. This is a crime which affects people’s entire lives, which is almost like killing a little part of someone, where they may never be the same- it’s one of the most disgusting crimes imaginable. If you’re a guy and don’t really understand how horrible the thought is or can’t understand why people find it so horrifying, just think of the idea of a guy bigger and stronger than you forcing themselves into you– does the thought makes your skin crawl? How’d you react if a bully did that to you in school or a deserted parking lot? Think for a moment, before you continue. This is the crime- how can someone doing one of the worst crimes possible get away around 99.5% of the time?

The answer clearly, is that something is terribly wrong with the status quo, and most of this with the mindset that the population in general, and figures in law enforcement and courts specifically as well, seem to have regarding rape and sexual violence. In English, these certain views are known as ‘rape culture’. It doesn’t refer to rapists- but to sexism and objectification of any women, to dismissing or stigmatizing women who have been victims of a crime, of a reluctance to consider the problem as one or to blame victims. It’s hard to deny that cultures do have a problem with sexism and objectification, and that it directly leads both to the enormously high rate of sexual violence as well as the disproportionately low rates of punishment. And this statement leads on to the basic idea that the views you hold and the things you say- whether it’s a sexist joke, or an objectifying discussion, or ‘dating tips’ that tell you how to manipulate a girl to try get them, or a demeaning comment to a woman when with a bunch of friends- directly create the atmosphere where women are unsafe, where these crimes can happen, and where people get away with it.

We begin to realize that these are an issue even as young as high school or teenage years. Not only because opinions that last for life can be created or broken at that age, but even in a direct way- if, as the earlier statistic says, one in every seven college girls has been raped, then trying to cut out the possibility even before that is obviously crucial.

So now we’re led to the question of how this is connected to the first section of this article. Ultimately, this is a call for action.

They could be the little things that individual readers can decide to do, too. For example, the guys among our readership who aren’t already so deciding to have guts, and stop making sexist statements or objectifying comments and be more respectful to women, regardless of whether other guys will make fun of you, to be a real man and decide that creating a safer world is a principle more important than trying to be macho and fit in. Understanding that no means no, and trying to understand when you’re trying to make a move or talk to a woman or understand if they say no that, for someone growing up with the very real possibility of a violent crime happening to you anywhere and of anyone you are alone with hurting you, that for all they know you might do the same. Or for girls to demand the bravery of standing up for that from their male friends, classmates or boyfriends; because when something is no longer acceptable in your classes or circles of friends, it makes people think about whether and how it is wrong.

But mostly, for students in schools or colleges, or people who’re working. Not everyone will read this, maybe only a handful. But this is a call of action for you with the hope that you’ll go back to your schools or classes or workplaces, and you’ll ask the teacher or the principal or the boss for some time to talk a little or give a presentation, and that you will.

I’m firmly of the belief that, even though some unshakeable jerks exist in every group of people, that a large majority of people who are sexist or objectifying will stop once they understand the magnitude of the issue, that even though individual criminals may be okay the mindset which shapes these future criminals and then lets them get away with it is a matter of ignorance that can be corrected. Much like people’s views on racism has changed between the 60s and now, or how many people who grow up against homosexuality get rid of their homophobic views as they learn more about it and see that it’s normal. Those were all also situations where people were to some degree dehumanized, and thus a mindset of discrimination and violence against them was more acceptable than it is now- as people are taught to not think of a woman as some weird other species, or a video-game puzzle to unlock to get some, or someone at a bar to try trick and manipulate into sleeping with you, or as temperamental, irrational bundles of emotions, or eye candy, or someone at work who is less good at things.

It’ll help them realize the fact that not calling it out is creating an atmosphere where sexist comments are considered okay, and having to calmly bear objectifying or lewd remarks is considered part and parcel of life that girls should just live with and get over. One where people who’d do stuff like that hear  all that, instead of things that make them take a look at themselves and think- and then believe or make themselves believe that it’s not as big a deal, that it’s condoned, that doing so and so to a woman isn’t as bad, and go on to do those kinds of things. And that a world where those things are accepted instead of called out and shamed is one that creates the kind of sexism where police and juries and people are able to dehumanize those girls far too easily and assume a lie instead of facing a possibility that makes people uncomfortable, making people so reluctant to report it because they’re more likely to get in trouble than to get help; a world where people constantly put some responsibility of it on them, even though nobody finds it that hard to believe if someone says they got robbed or beat up, or says they were asking for it by looking like they’d own a wallet. And as that changes and improves, open and widespread sexism and objectification will become a thing of the past as much as open and widespread racism has become nowadays.

So this is a call for action for all of you, in an increasingly connected world, with the internet allowing you to share your own experience with it or plan and make ideas, to try that in your own schools and workplaces so that a number of the twenty or fifty or two hundred others you talk to may just walk out of there with a different mindset, that they may tell their friends or share their views or stand up for those beliefs to other people, and that way it could change a city. That in a world with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and dozens of friends from various countries, that this idea could spread to other schools and other cities and other countries.

It’s a belief that our generation is one that can change the world and that it’s probably around time for us to start. That we can set our minds to it, starting here in our own communities, on to our cities and countries, and perhaps, who knows, the world- to start in our hallways and classrooms to make sexism and rape no longer something ‘everyday’.

 

Footnotes

[1] – http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132_2102373,00.html

[2] – www2.binghamton.edu/counseling/documents/RAPE_FACT_SHEET1.pdf

 

New Economy

 

Introduction

We live in a world where the barriers towards creation and dissemination of content are systematically getting reduced. To take the example of media- twenty years ago all we could see and read was what certain authority figures- newspaper editors, cable channel studios, governments, etc- could create, moderate, modify, color or present with a shade of bias and show us. But now the cost of creating content is as small as a webcam, Movie Maker and YouTube, or your mobile phone camera, or a blogging platform like Tumblr. There’s no need for expensive equipment and technical knowledge, or being in a position at a channel or studio a select few hold and so on. And the barriers to information dissemination have also gone from owning or working for a major newspaper or studio, to YouTube or Facebook pages or a trending topic on Twitter.

I’d argue that it’s almost inevitable that as it develops and the barriers for other things (financing online, communications, biometrically secure voting, etc) the model will expand to everything from business, to government, to health, to whatever. Whether it’s by technology enabling voting to be more representative- or something like, to run on from the previous example of media, a framework allowing a large number of artists and art school students to band together, upload their content to it, select by votes or thumbs-up the best series or films they’ve made, and upload it two days ahead of time all in time-slots to be aired as a cable channel but created democratically, as an example- or many other things.

I think that a massive change in social structures and everything, the biggest since the 40s or 60s. Whether this happens in 5 years or 10 or 20. I think that the current generation, who’re growing up in the organic-systems age where there is no barrier to creation of content has the mindset of attacking issues by creating organic, self-correcting systems, very much unlike almost all of human history so far where to some extent or the other authority figures have been the ones creating all the frameworks and material and decisions. That there will be a general trend towards systems that are set up to develop organically and self-correct, instead of controlled by some authorities. Wikipedia, an encyclopedia created through mass creation and correction towards the most accurate information; open source software and mobile app stores; Twitter trending topics and blogging and YouTube forcing media accountability.

Essentially, a massive shift in the way the whole world works- from authority figures creating/deciding content/ideas/news/designs/products/laws/systems/whatever to systems being created organically, like apps adding to a mobile phone and patches fixing problems in it. A world where content creation or information spreading or a voice no longer limited to a handful of authorities with money, reach and equipment to do it but is made as a whole with bits being added or fixed like apps and patches do for software. Organic systems. From the media, to businesses, to the government, to the economy. I think it’s inevitable.

 

Politics

Something I feel is that mankind isn’t meant to stand still in any aspect of our lives. There are fields and areas where moving forward is a goal, if not the goal- science, technology, medicine. And then there are areas where we somehow attach a certain moral significance and weight to ideas- democracy down to every letter as envisioned decades ago, capitalism as a moral bastion over communism down from the Cold War days, a commitment to education as putting kids in schools and drumming ideas down their throats…

There is a tendency to keep on staying still with a loyalty to ideas that had served us well, without looking to evolve them or build on them, or use the technology or knowledge we have now to expand on their possibilities. It’s a path the world is moving towards. With social networking and microblogging, Wikipedia and increased connectivity, millions of apps and the proliferation of mobile devices, and the associated change in mindset that has come with this decentralization of knowledge and free spread of ideas. It’s a path that, as I’ve repeated a few too many times already, I believe is inevitable.

Our governments are based on a centuries-old system, democracy, that is often left untouched and unimproved out of some feeling of the moral right it is supposed to embody. However, as the world advances, that there are some very major flaws but which technological improvement to the system- patches, so to speak, or bug fixes- can or will actually fix.

One of these major flaws is that elected officials will vote in their own interests, and they’re usually rich, or backed by special interests, or in other ways the kind of people who were in circumstances to be able to be elected- and those interests rarely dovetail with those of the public (whether voting to give themselves more benefits, or to please their corporate sponsors, or whatever). The other is gridlock when it is never in the interests of one political party to allow another to notch up any successes so it’s always in the interests of one party to shoot down anything the other tries to push through (usually opposition against ruling), because the fewer successes the other party has, the better the prospects of your own party is in the next elections.

Until now the only reason we elect representatives by votes, and so on, is because it’s the only way we have the capability to run a country- millions of people can’t meet in a city hall and take a show of hands on an issue, referendums are too expensive and logistically difficult to set up in a fair way so only left for enormous issues like whether a country wants to join the EU, etc- but as that capacity gets created, those bits should be plugged in to the system. I could theorize that if the technological capacity to run a referendum without all that expense (for example if widespread computing or even electronic platforms in neighborhoods, connectivity and some kind of biometrical test like retinal or something scans if a database of national IDs and fingerprints/retinal scans exists) comes into being- if someone designs a platform and someone else improves on it and it ends up good enough to be fair and all-encompassing- then for major issues or budgets or major bills at least, direct democracy can run a vote on it. Which eliminates votes on issues being affected by MPs’ own interests or direct corporate campaign donors or something, and eliminates gridlock of people just blocking every major issue to make the other party have no victories, so two of the main flaws of the system are reduced.

Or, to go further along this line of thinking but perhaps more practically- draw a perfectly random, statistically large number of people- selections among citizenry is already widespread in most countries as done for jury duty, for example- that is representative, give them files or evidence containing views from all the stakeholders and arguments from both sides, etc- again like jury duty- and then let them be a factor voting on major bills. They’ll be randomly drawn and a large enough pool to balance out so they’ll be fully representative, they won’t mostly ‘1-percenters’ or even career politicians, they’d have no interest in future electability so no need for just opposing everything or creating a gridlock, and since they are randomly drawn for each major issue as it comes and haven’t been in the career for years would be much harder to secretly lobby or buy out. (Something along these lines, called deliberative polling, are already being tested out in Australia by the IDA). Whether through jury duty style selections or outright referendum or whatever, this direct democracy is a nice layer- one that could work almost like a third house of parliament, so to speak, one that has a major say in some of the larger issues and has final say on the biggest matters- that can be plugged into the political system to eliminate its two biggest flaws.

 

Economy

Occupy Wall Street the movement has suddenly brought into light the failures of the current economic system as well as the aforementioned political systems. Instead of settling for regulations and laws while sticking to old schools of thought and old ideas, the current atmosphere of focus on the failures of the existing situation provides an opportunity to look at new ideas and thought without the lens of skepticism through which new ideas and change are usually viewed.

There may be some changes in law or role of businesses. Even now, in certain states in the USA, business licenses based on the social good a company does as well allow businesses to no longer be limited by legal obligations to provide maximum return to shareholders, allowing for companies that can set as goals impact on communities or change in society. Along this direction towards new laws there might be, for example, something like- a law that massive companies over a certain size should own, say, at least 5% of their assets, in the form of venture capital or shares in small businesses. This could specify that these massive companies can own at most a 49% share in those small businesses or that it has to be a non-voting or simply financial investment in the holdings which count towards the 5% of assets, so that we don’t see many small businesses simply going under the control of large companies through this investment. A law like this would make millions of dollars available for funding for small businesses and startups that currently find it very hard to get financing. It would do this without causing a direct loss to those large companies too, since they are not being taxed this amount- those are still assets they own and investments on which they will be getting a return on their original financing. Since the massive companies have a vested interest in these small businesses succeeding, the chances of frameworks through which they get training and support needed to grow and be successful is much more likely- this wouldn’t happen with an alternative like companies just giving away some money for SMEs, for example.

A main shift will probably along the lines of increased entrepreneurship and shifting away from banks and major financial institutions. Returning to the theme of societal change caused by connectivity- it allows normal people or small businesses to band together and benefit from economies of scale in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to before- and ultimately, towards making resorting to many currently necessary institutions unnecessary. Systems which will provide a framework of security and checks-and-balances that avoid the worries many people have for pooling resources, and the connectivity to allow people to collaborate in this way.

It could be real estate- groups of people pooling their economic power to buy or develop apartment blocks or a number of housing units enough to divide up at an affordable cost instead of having to take out bank loans at exorbitant levels of interest to pay for the retail prices individuals would have to pay- or basic goods stores, services, investments in small businesses, anything. The basic idea is that as the frameworks for people to both connect and securely pool their money, these ‘superconsumers’- consumer units of many individuals banded together through a technology/framework that allows them to both find like-minded individuals and safely/securely do so- will become a larger and larger economic force.

Another main change I foresee is in banking. Occupy has brought many of the issues surrounding the practice of banks and the banking system to light, ranging from crises in housing to student debt practices little short of intentionally cruel. For much of recent decades banks have been a necessary institution- their role in allowing people to buy homes or fund businesses through loans or allow people to invest their money wasn’t one served elsewhere. But now we’re starting to see an alternative to traditional banking coming up in various forms.

It’s in something that are actually two rather different original ideas, but could be similar enough in evolution for me to discuss them together. One is ‘Islamic finance’, or namely the banking models sprouting up over the world under the religious limitation of interest being prohibited. Most of these banks follow the system where people who put in their money to save, instead of getting fixed interest and having their money then be lent out again at a fixed interest, have their money invested in a loan applicant who applies for a loan for any value-generating process (whether to start a small business, or a loan to build a house which he will then rent out, or so on) as a part shareholder. So, for example, if I put in my savings to the no-interest bank, my money, instead of being lent out, will be given for a share of (non-controlling) ownership, and instead of loan interest being the interest I get in my savings account, it’s the dividends that I get as regular payments. Some of those investments into small businesses or ventures won’t be successful, of course, but overall it brings in enough profits to cancel out those rare losses and give gains to people who deposit their money in the first place. That was a very short summary that doesn’t really capture the concept- for details, you can read up on the subject from various sources online.

The other, related area is microfinance. Companies such as Kiva (as well as many other microfinance institutions) allow people to invest their money, from as little as $10 or $25, in the form of loans to people who will use it for something that generates value- starting a small business, getting stock for agriculture, and so on. Many of these microfinance institutions report loan payback rates of over 98%- Kiva itself has a loan payback rate of 98.88%- which adds up to a low overall risk.

It seems obvious that there is enormous untapped potential for increased growth among millions of people without the situation to empower themselves- as technology allows the kind of connectivity to tap into these potential and automate the process, ‘ethical’ banking/microfinance companies which manage the savings of people given them and use them to manage portfolios of microfinance investments that provide steady if slow gains to these savings accounts, allows them to make a difference to the world that they can look up on if they so wished, drives actual economic growth, and has the low risk of not wiping out massive amounts of money if any one creditor defaults.

 

Business

Business being a more ‘individual’ segment than most of the other parts of this article, I’ll write this part in idea form.

Let’s look at what too many businesses and companies look for when hiring-  maybe not so much in cutting-edge industries of developed countries nowadays, but something that is still the only reality in many developing countries, especially South Asia. Your official qualifications, and your experiences. I would argue that sole focus on this, specifically for high-level positions or positions of responsibility, where ideas or creativity is important, isn’t necessarily the way to go about running a business. Looking at some of the companies in the forefront of innovation, we see a culture where the focus is on talent and ideas. Google, for example, lets their employees have a fifth of their work time to work on their own projects. And people on the internet who make amazing online tools for Google services are quickly recruited- recently, a college student who made an Instant search for YouTube the way Google Instant operates now was immediately contacted with a job offer..

The theme I’m getting at here is that companies should probably start to consider the ideas a candidate says they have as the main factor when hiring. Look for the message, not the messenger, and hire the people who have brilliant ideas and can demonstrate that they can back them up. Where I lived most of my life, and in much of Asia, this culture is pretty much nonexistent- qualification or seniority matters most. We need to cut that out. Why shouldn’t a company- or a government ministry, or small business- looking for the best put out their job offers asking applicants to not just show their list of past jobs, but to study your company and explain to you the ideas they have to change or improve it? I think here in the Maldives we should start giving that some weight as well.

For example, encourage anyone looking for a job at your company to just walk in and present what brilliant thing they could do, in a specific format of proposal which you make publicly available on your website and your reception desk, and if someone suggests something brilliant, give them consideration. Don’t worry as much about their qualifications and experience as much as brilliant ideas and creative solutions. They could even be someone inexperienced in the field, or a teenage college student.

This continues on to having merit based recognition on a general basis as well. The information explosion in the world in recent years is due to the ability for everyone, instead of a limited number of professionals, suddenly being able to act on ideas and create content. The post-Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube age, where information can be looked up instantly and content can be easily created and made accessible to the world, is seeing humanity now generating as much total new knowledge and content every three years as was the sum of all human knowledge in all the years up to 2003[6]. This was driven by  mindset change of everyone being part of the creative process, in testing and ideas and content and design, all over the world- with the best ideas and suggestions and content and websites, as one would expect through capitalist principles of competition, rising to the top- getting the most visibility and most being the most acted-on or influential.

A company or economy can increase productivity, by moving with the times and use technological resources available only now to replicate this system of anyone being able to have the building blocks to come up with ideas and the means to present them easily. Have company policy that allows employees no matter their rank or seniority to suggest solutions or ideas, in form of proposals in a particular format; incentivize this by evaluating and rewarding them accordingly. If a desk employee presents a proposal for some brilliant new operation the company could start which would bring in money, put him as one of the members in charge of planning the project. Keep basic company information easily accessible to employees, as well as previous successes and failures of ideas- allow the employees that would take on the task of trying to create something new or brilliant the tools to carry this out by keeping this information available. Create a system for the submission of ideas and projects- a proposal form or template, for example, which employees can fill in and submit directly to the required department.

The next theme I would get at would be creativity among employees. Knowledge. The fact that a wider breadth and variety of knowledge and details, and freedom to express ideas, will breed creativity, and creativity will breed innovation and good ideas and the shortcuts or developments that will make your business or government office or country, whatever, succeed. The capability to do this very simply and at next to no cost exists now, and building them for the future would be easy enough- why not take advantage? I don’t mean just now-ubiquitous services like Wikipedia- I’m also talking about things like KhanAcademy, for example, the online site which has video lessons at college level for subjects from biology and chemistry to economics and history in short, simple lessons, or iTunes University, where short videos of actual lectures in universities like Harvard are available for free.

I’d say that every employee should be learning something throughout their life in a company, that their value should keep on increasing as much as possible during their stay for a business to benefit the most from them. For example, all employees, from office cubicle workers to managers and admin staff, can have a format through which they can keep on constantly learning and gaining education while they work. Not just in their fields, but in the whole breadth of education, because people who know a lot about a lot of things will be more productive, more creative, and crucially in the current business environment, more innovative. The different schools and methods of thinking in the different fields is why interdisciplinary knowledge makes people most capable of thinking outside the box.

For example, all employees could log in to a video lessons portal and watch one video lesson and do one exercise every day- this will take about twenty minutes of the day. Over time, businesses can have their own knowledge bases as well- files on previous projects, 10-minute video explanations of various aspects of the company or things employees should know.

This can even apply to unskilled employees or manual workers- through the same concept, they can be in a position for much improved prospects by the time they stop working in your company. Certain companies in Massachusetts already do this, from what I know, allowing manual workers to get their GEDs. Your unskilled workers take half an hour or so a day to learn a little through the educational videos and an exercise, while working full-time. By the time three or so years pass, they learn the material they need to do a high school exam or GED and can move on to better prospects, strengthening the community and their livelihoods.

In today’s business world, with the crucial role of networking, flexibility and connectivity in business, I would argue that a focus on tying down employees is less ideal and actually aiming for a higher rate of turnover in most positions is something to aim for. I think that an ideal strategy, especially for a small or medium sized business but also for most firms, would be to have a policy where they support employees to achieve their life goals. Whether to move on to another bigger company or government position, or start their own small business (or even something more eclectic like get published or start their own conservation program, whatever). It will increase productivity by making employees feel valued, of course-however, the main purpose would be that, in a modern business environment where networking and connections are crucial, former employees with good relations and a moral debt to you in positions in bigger companies, or public roles, or running a small business which could provide goods and services you use (at better rates or with more focus on higher quality due to the personal interest than you could normally expect for said business or service, for example) or whatever creates a strong position for a business, is increasingly important. Formal and informal connections and the advantages they can bring is increasingly advantageous for businesses- employees that leave can be filled by new employees, but these connections cannot be bought or created by any other means than human ties.

Of course, all this also ties into the factor of goodwill- always an important commodity for a business. In a world with clear trends towards an increasingly socially conscious public and customer base- where businesses soon will not be just praised for corporate social responsibility and responsible operations that generate real wealth and benefit the communities they belong to but be expected to have them- again, something I believe that current trends point to and is inevitable- a reputation of such positive culture provides immeasurable value at little loss. (And applied on a policy level for the operations of businesses in the country, gives a reputation of positive culture and innovation to the country itself- crucial connotations in nations that depends very much on its image for its economic growth or survival).

 


Ariel’s World

1

 

She’d always be sitting up at the foot of the bed, her legs up and her arms tightly hugging her knees as if she were feeling cold, even though it wasn’t. The warm red glow of the little nightlight formed deep, dipping shadows across her face; coloured in the texture of the cotton pyjamas she always wore.

The night felt overwhelmingly warm, and safe, and comfortable, the way it always did; the room had a drowsy, sleepy sort of feel, as you’d expect from a closed place with almost no windows on a balmy night. The air was still and heavy in a way that brought to mind the stillness before rain broke in a thunderstorm, when you don’t really feel hot but the air swelters, unmoving.  Sometimes I wondered if, in those moments after I’d lock the door to my bedroom and fumble in the total darkness for the switch of the nightlight, the room became some little place of magic; if the outside world disappeared and this little square was suspended somehow, alone in some universe between universes.

 

I was sitting on the bed as well, by the pillows.

‘How was school?’, she asked.

I smiled. ‘The usual. I don’t even know why you bother asking.’

She looked down at her knees, seeming a little embarrassed.

‘How was school for you?’, I asked after a while.

She looked up at me shyly. ‘You know. The usual.’

‘Don’t be so shy’, I said suddenly. ‘We’ve known each other for ages now. We’ve spent pretty much every night up here for like months now. There’s no reason to be shy.’

‘Look who’s talking’, she said archly. ‘You say you can’t even talk to girls at school.’

‘That’s different.’

‘It’s really not.’ She laughed. She was the type of girl who’d seem really quiet and wouldn’t talk much, but once they got started they’d tease you mercilessly in the same quiet, timid tone that was very incongruous. ‘I’m the only one who ever makes fun of you. should be the one lecturing you, actually. To stop being so serious all the time.’

‘I’m not’, I said.

‘Are too.’

‘I’m just a little nervous’, I shot back.

‘Why?’ She laughed again. ‘D’you still think I’m a ghost?’

 

 

The first time I saw her I had thought she was a ghost. It’s a funny story.

I’d walked into my bedroom and locked the door, fumbled for the switch amid the total darkness and turned on the little red nightlight as I sat down on my bed, to see her there, sitting where I know now is where she always sat, in her pyjamas at the foot of the bed. I’d started, but some part of me knew somehow  that there was no reason to freak out, that nothing was wrong. She’d looked over at me sleepily and smiled with the kind of amused, accepting smile you give a sudden apparition in a dream.

I’d sat further back against the headrest and smiled back uncertainly.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

I told her. ‘What’s yours?’

‘Lindsay’, she said.

‘That’s funny…’

‘Why?’

‘You look a lot like this girl from TV’, I told her. ‘Dark hair, blue eyes, the works. I had the biggest crush on her. She’s also a Lindsay.’

She smirked. ‘Maybe that’s me, in the future. Maybe you showed up in my dream from the future to let me know I’m going to be a big celebrity.’

‘I’m not from the future’, I said, and somehow this conversation actually seemed normal at the time. ‘Or at least, I didn’t travel through time in any way. I’m still in my present. Maybe you’re from the past and there was some kind of glitch that made space-time bundle up a little and our timeframes intersect for a little while.’

‘Wait’, she said. ‘What year are you living in?’

‘2011. You?’

‘2011…’ Her voice trailed off into thought. ‘Okay, guess that’s not me on TV, then. Too bad. And guess you’re not a time-traveller.’

‘Okay’, I said.

She yawned. ‘I’m sleepy. I think I’ll go back to sleep now. Goodbye and good luck, dream friend.’

‘I should too’, I said, and turned off the light.

 

I’d decided that it was a dream by next morning. I’d woken up and my door was still locked, my room the same as it’d always been. My family lived downstairs. There was no way a real person could have gotten in or out of my house.

But once again that night, I locked the door to my empty bedroom and turned on the nightlight, and there she was, sitting up against the wall at the foot of the bed.

 

She looked surprised this time. ‘It’s you again!’

Then she stared at me for a moment, then looked relieved.

‘Oh, of course this is some sort of rather elaborate and repetitive dream. That’s the only way to explain it.’

‘Oh my God, if my own dreams are beginning to get self-aware that’s the creepiest thing ever-‘

‘Let’s just pinch ourselves then’, she said. ‘I mean myself.’

We looked at each other nervously and did.

‘It hurt for me.’

‘Yeah, it did for me too’, she said. ‘So I’m not dreaming and you’re real and actually here. I know I should be totally freaking out at a guy being in my room-‘

‘This is my room!’ I interrupted.

‘What’d you mean, your room?’ she shot back. ‘This is my room. My bed, my desk, my Beatles posters. My nightlight.’

‘I live here’, I said. ‘This is my room. In my house. I just had dinner downstairs only a while ago. I was doing homework in this same room earlier in the evening. put up those posters when I moved here!’ I stopped suddenly. ‘Wait. I know what’s happened. Did you ever see that movie, the one where there’s like this family that lives in a house and every night they hear stuff and they think the house is haunted, but it turns out that actually they just hadn’t known all along and kept on thinking they were living in the house but actually they were the ghosts? That’s what’s happening, you think this is your-‘

‘Are you saying I’m a ghost?’ she interrupted. ‘What? Are you insane? Do I look like a ghost to you?’

‘That’s what they thought too’, I told her gently.

She picked up a pillow and hit me on the head with it.

‘Ow!’

She laughed. ‘Corporeal enough for you now?’

‘Okay, okay’, I said. ‘You’re not a ghost.’

‘And since that pillow didn’t go right through you when I hit you with it, neither are you’, she said. ‘So there’s a guy in my room-‘

I opened my mouth to interrupt again, but decided not to say anything.

‘But somehow I don’t feel any panic. It’s like somehow some part of me knows that there’s no reason to freak out, that it’s nothing to worry about. It’s like a dream in that way.’ She flashed me a look. ‘I’m sorry, I’m still probably talking to you like you aren’t real. It’ll take a while for my head to really get used to the idea.’

‘But how did you get here?’ I asked.

‘I just went into my bedroom and locked the door and sat down at the foot of the bed, and when I open my eyes there you were.’

 

 

1

 

I laughed. ‘No I don’t! I know you’re real. If you recall, you hit me on the head to prove that you had corporeal form. That made me pretty certain.’

‘I’m sorry.’ She giggled. ‘It was a really stupid idea.’

‘It made sense in context’, I said defensively. ‘We didn’t know enough details back then to actually make any better theories.’

‘But we do now’, she said. ‘We know enough to put the pieces together.’

 

 

It’d been over two weeks where we’d kept on seeing each other every night. When I’d close the bedroom and turn the nightlight on, she’d be there in my room; or, as we pieced together, I’d be there in hers.

We’d slowly gotten familiar with each other, the sort of familiarity that you’d expect being thrust into a common weirdness would create. At least it gave us something in common for us to start off, and having a goal- figuring out what was going on- kept conversation from becoming the kind of awkward silences I knew too well. I could tell she probably wasn’t the most social back in school wherever it was that she went either.

 

We kept on being surprised at each other’s conversation, at first. You don’t ever really realize just how much of daily conversation is references to current events or pop culture until you’re talking to someone who knows literally nothing about any of it.

She’d been curious to know more about this other girl Lindsay, so I told her. ‘This show, it’s sort of like a reality show.’

‘Like a what?’

I gaped at her. ‘You don’t know what reality shows are? What rock have you been living under the past decade?’

‘I haven’t’, she said. ‘I watch loads of TV and I’ve never seen any of those.’

‘You’re not living on this Earth, are you?’

‘Of course I am’, she said impatiently, then her expression seemed to dawn with sudden comprehension. ‘Wait, wait. I get it. We’re somehow, you know, we’re not actually from the same world. We’re both from Earth and stuff but it’s still a different world. And somehow through some glitch we’re ending up seeing each other here.’

 

 

And as we’d talked about how we got here, we’d figured out that this was both our rooms, somehow. Our houses, our neighbourhoods, everything outside our rooms were different for the both of us. Where I lived was a suburban area, with trees lining the roads and shinier, newer houses in neat rows. I lived in a large, rather white house, and went upstairs to my room. She lived in a more urban neighbourhood with much older, smaller houses and a much greyer tone to the place. But somehow when we both went up to the first floor, the ten by ten space inside was somehow identical in whichever worlds the two of us lived. We had the same bed and the same posters, the same nightlight and the same little window which was practically pointless.

 

Clearly we were from two different worlds, and this room was a place where both worlds were somehow identical. Where they coincided. Maybe there were hundreds of other such locations all around the world too, little spots which remained identical and were windows in some way to another universe. Or maybe this was the only one in both our worlds.

We’d both go into our rooms and turn on our nightlights in the darkness, and we’d both be there, in my-her-our room. And when we’d turn off the nightlight we’d somehow go back to our own worlds, alone in our own bedrooms.

We talked at first about the lives of our respective worlds, said almost nothing about ourselves. We’d joke about which of our worlds were better- hers didn’t have reality TV, which was a huge plus there, but ours had Tumblr and Lenka, so that evened out. It seemed that mine and hers shared a common history somewhere. We’d both had the world wars, we’d both had Elvis and the Beatles. It seemed like our worlds has diverged somewhere in the sixties or seventies, and were quite different now. We didn’t know if somehow there was one universe running along and it somehow split into two like the fraying end of a rope, like an unravelling double helix, forty or fifty years ago. Maybe the world did that a lot, and the original universe of thousands of years ago had split into two like a seed putting out roots as it grew, diverging every few decades into an alternate reality. Or maybe we were two completely different universes from the start in a multiverse filled with an infinite number of universes, and in infinity there happened to be two worlds that had been so similar except for recent events.

‘Or maybe’, she said, ‘it’s like in physics. The idea that every moment, every decision, creates a new thread of space-time, and somewhere amid the trillions of almost-overlapping but invisible alternate universes there’d be one where each and every decision you or anyone else has made was taken differently, and it branched off into a new world. Maybe we were the products of two different branches in some history of the world, some decision someone we’ll never know took around the sixties. Maybe something completely innocuous, like someone stepping out of his house a minute too early, and the little gust of wind from his door launched a hurricane in the Mid-West which caused some little kid to go to a different school and grow up to be a President or not a president, or some little thing like that.’

‘We have that same theory in physics in our world too’, I said. ‘It’s called the Butterfly Effect. In chaos theory.’

‘We call it static studies. The Butterfly Effect is such an oddly poetic name for something scientific. Why is it called that?’

 

I explained it to her. ‘It’s pretty much exactly what you said’, I finished.

She laughed suddenly, a little dry laugh. ‘Who would have ever thought I’d be discussing physics with a guy? That’s something I never saw coming.’

‘Who would’ve thought I’d ever be discussing anything with a girl, period? Let alone in my bedroom?’

‘It’s m-‘ she started, and stopped suddenly. ‘Oh yeah, true…’

‘I get the feeling we have a lot more in common than we know’, I said. ‘Maybe coincidence-

‘Or fate’, she butted in. ‘I think in a situation like this we’re entitled to just say this is how fate decided things.’

‘Or fate’, I added. ‘Whatever it was, it was kind enough to make sure the people we’d randomly happen on like this were someone with whom we had a lot in common. You’ve told me about the appearance of your neighbourhood and where you go to school and all that stuff. I know a lot about your world now. But I don’t know pretty much anything about you.

‘But where do I start?’

‘Start anywhere’, I told her. ‘Tell me about school. Tell me about your home life. Tell me about the stuff you like.’

 

 

1

 

‘Yeah we do’, I said blandly. ‘We know all about everything. Sort of.’

‘Yeah…’, she said.

The air was still silence for a moment. I felt a sudden burst of emotion, a rising feeling of urgency, an almost frustration.

‘Why’re we talking like this? Why’re we talking so blandly, like we just happened across each other in the mall and were having a little small talk before we went back to whatever we’d been doing?’

 

 

We stayed up for hours that night, talking. She told me about school, that she was studying science, that she was pretty much a loner aside from

‘Kathy’, she said. ‘She’s like my best friend. Sort of. I mean, she is. We sit together in all our classes and whenever I do go out it’s always with her. She’s a lot more outgoing than I am, she has loads of friends and she always tries to set me up with people, even though I tell her I don’t really want to.’

‘Do you really like her?’

‘Hmm…’ She seemed a little discomfited at first. ‘I like her. I mean, of course I do. She’s my best friend. I know when I talk about my life it might seem like I really don’t like it much, but I do, you know. I don’t really hate it. I’m pretty much perfectly fine with my lot in life. I kinda rather like my life as it is.’

‘I see’, I said noncommittally.

‘What about yours?’

‘I don’t know’, I told her. ‘I guess I’m also pretty ambivalent towards life. I don’t really hate it. For now it feels like some sort of transition, though, I don’t feel like I’m really existing as something right now. I’m on my way to doing this, and on my way to doing that, and on my way to becoming that, nothing in my life is in terms of the now. It’s all in terms of later. It makes me feel… rootless. Anchorless. D’you know what I mean?’

‘Sort of’, she said. ‘But not really.’

 

 

It continued almost every night. We’d both wolf down our dinners and go nervously upstairs, we’d lock the doors and fumble in the darkness for the switch, and the burst of dim red light would push away the darkness of our day, or our lives. My heart would always start wildly the moment the crack of light disappeared as I closed the door and darkness  fell, so hard I wondered if she could hear it from wherever between dimensions we were before the switch flipped.

I’d always talk really calmly when I was nervous, and I’d always greet her in the steadiest of voices. And then we’d slowly warm up into conversation, and we’d talk for ages. The first few days we didn’t have much to talk about, then one night we realized we felt comfortable enough around each other in the dim night and still warmth to talk about anything. So we talked about ourselves, things we never talked about or got to talk about or could talk about with anyone else.

‘Sometimes I see all these really beautiful girls, and I see how they always have someone to give them affection and hang off them’, she told me. ‘And always someone who’ll love them. I know it’s easy for us to say that people don’t really love those pretty girls, it’s just lust or for their looks, but you know something? People do. Some people always do. Nice guys do fall for them. In their fantasies the perfect girl is that beautiful, so they see someone beautiful and imagine them as perfect. It used to bug me. But at some point, I figured that I’m kinda glad to not have been. I feel like I wouldn’t really be able to know just how special love is if I hadn’t gone through the years feeling unloved. I wouldn’t take it for granted cos I’d felt the empty sense of being alone.’

‘I think you’re beautiful’ I said.

She smiled. ‘And because when you do hear a guy tell you that it’s actually something special. That’s worth not being drop-dead beautiful.’

We sat by each other contently for a few moments.

‘You know what the weird thing about me is?’

‘No’, she said. ‘Do tell.’

‘I’m always in love with something,’  I told her. ‘I don’t know why, but it’s how I am. I’m just the kind of guy who’ll always be desperately in love. Sometimes it’s for a book, or a song, or a thought, or a place. Often it’s a girl. It’s always someone unachievable. Someone who appears on TV all the way from the USA. Someone I can never have. I fall for anything really fast, and I fall really hard. I think I look for some kind of magic everywhere, and life seems too mundane. So I fall in love with everything.’

She smiled bitterly. ‘That must be nice.’

‘It’s really not’, I said.

 

I fell for her, really fast, really hard. She was the only girl I’d ever been able to talk to.  She was beautiful. She was real. But maybe most of all, it was the sense that it was supposed to happen.

The thought that the one spot in my universe and hers which coincided would turn out to be our bedrooms, that the two people inhabiting that one spot would both be late-teens, shy, Beatles-loving loners- It could’ve been any two spots. It could’ve been any two people. The romance of the situation lent itself to the belief that it was no coincidence, that it was some kind of magic.

We fell for each other, really hard, really fast. I don’t know if you know but spending long hours every night with alone with someone, baring your souls out in the dim light, creates an atmosphere of intimacy very quickly. Especially when neither of us really had anyone else.

We never admitted it, and we’d never even suggest at it in conversation. But, after the first couple days, for when we’d meet at nights, I’d always wear newer clothes when I went to bed, and she’d always smell of shampoo. And we’d chatter along in conversations and always hit that little invisible bump, and we’d slowly tiptoe around it ever so politely. How people are so implicit in not admitting or showing that they like each other is an eternal mystery to me. Isn’t that unspoken decision to always skirt around it as good as admitting that you’re into each other? But maybe that’s part of the wonder of it, and life is made by those little thrills.

 

 

1

 

Her voice was a note too high, a beat too rushed. ‘I don’t see any problem. I think we’re having a perfectly normal conversation.’

‘No, it’s not!’, I said heatedly. ‘And you know it. We both know it.’

 

Sometimes in the daytime I wondered if it was all a dream. Some kind of elaborate, repetitive dream. Whether a dream in the sense that it was all some creation of my imagination, or a dream in the sense that when I slept I was living in a world that did exist on some level, where she was real, but everything still took place in our heads while our bodies stayed in our respective beds. I sometimes wondered what I’d do if I found out it was all a dream, and I realized that I’d rather keep on sleeping than give everything up and go back to waking.

But we’d decided that it wasn’t a dream, figured out that we happened to meet in a location where our overlapping universes fit together perfectly, even though we never really knew the mechanics of the issue. Maybe it was some kind of magic that decided how we met, how we appeared and disappeared, and maybe magic was something that folded and ebbed among the multiverse, closing and opening windows, like some kind of golden, sentient Dust. Or maybe it was the mystery of our brains and subconscious, that thing which science still knows so little of- maybe the subconscious was what made those little doors click open, maybe they all interacted and interplayed off each other in the multiverse. And it’d been our mutual longing for someone like us that had opened this particular door.

 

 

Eventually we stopped sitting at opposite ends of the bed and she moved up to sit by me, leaning against the headrest, just barely leaning against me as we talked. We talked very quietly, slowly, like we were content to just keep on talking to each other.

‘I’m not really close to Kathy’, she said quietly one night. ‘I mean, I like her. But we’re not like the kind of best friends that could be super close and get each other completely. We’re just too different. We don’t like much of the same stuff. You know how sometimes the really popular girl keeps on being best friends with their less cool childhood best friend even though they’ve turned out completely different over time? And they’ll be super understanding but they’ll keep on trying to cajole you into being cool and fun all the time. I think we’re just too different to be really close.

‘What about me?’ I asked her.

She looked up at me earnestly. ‘You know something? Sometimes I feel like the most unloved person in the world. Sometimes when you feel so lonely it physically hurts and you don’t really care but you just want someone, anyone, to be there.’

‘I feel like that sometimes’, I told her. ‘Like the world is turning around me, and I feel so alone. It’s like everyone else has something or someone, and I’m here. Alone.’

She looked straight into my eyes. ‘And I don’t get why,’ she said steadily. ‘I think, I’m a good person. Someone shouldlove me.’

I do’, I said.

A little something flickered in her eyes. ‘Thank you. I wanted you to tell me that.’

‘Won’t you tell me anything?’

‘Wait’, she said. She suddenly looked defeated, almost miserable. ‘I really should be going now, I have to wake up early. I should sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.’

 

 

The day barrelled past.

Night fell and I walked to my room, locked the door and turned on the little red nightlight by the bed. And there she was.

The atmosphere seemed heavy with awkwardness.

‘Hi’, I said.

‘Hi’, she answered. ‘How was today?’

‘It was okay’, I said blandly. ‘Yours?’

‘The usual’, she said.

 

We stayed still and looked around the room for a while, letting our eyes settle on anything but each other.

She was the one to catch my eye first, and smiled a little. I smiled back. She clambered over and sat where she usually sat, next to me on the bed, and rested her head on my shoulders.

‘Hey’, she said playfully.

I didn’t crack a smile. ‘About last night. What were you going to say to me?’

She scowled. ‘Do we have to talk about it?’

‘Of course  we have to talk about it!’, I said hotly. ‘I told you I was in love with you! And you didn’t really say anything back and I think you should say something back at least so I know, you know?’

‘Okay’, she muttered.

‘What’d you mean, okay?’

‘Look, I don’t know what is right for me, okay?’ she snapped. ‘Am I in love with you? Yes. A lot. Like crazy. But I don’t know if I want to be. I’m not a great believer in love, I haven’t had the best experiences with-‘

‘Wait’, I cut in, my chest feeling suddenly constricted. ‘I thought you were too shy to even talk to guys-‘

‘Yes, and I can’t!’, she said. ‘But what’d you expect? I could never go up and have conversations with people but it’s not like people haven’t ever come up and had conversations with me and been able to keep up conversation even though I suck at it, and when you’re like fifteen and nobody has ever noticed you you’re easily impressed when an older boy pays attention to you, you know? I thought you were different but you judge just as soon as any-‘

‘I’m not judging’, I said coldly. ‘You should’ve told me before, I mean we’ve talked for weeks and you never told meanything about that big huge aspect of your life?’

Her eyes were filling up with angry tears. ‘Yes, shoot me for not mentioning stuff I don’t really like to dwell on constantly! Especially you, you’ve done the same thing, I suck at conversation and you’ve still managed to talk to me for ages on end so you know it’s perfectly possible-‘

‘Because I thought we were an exception!’, I said, my voice getting colder the angrier I felt. ‘And please don’tcompare me to your previous-‘

‘Okay, I won’t!’, she screamed. ‘Look, fuck you, okay? You don’t have to be an asshole cos you can’t handle the fact that just cos you were a loser-‘ she clapped her mouth shut suddenly, and the anger seemed to flood out of her, replaced by a look of horror.

I felt tears of anger rise to the surface and somehow that made me feel even more blinded with anger, the thought that she could see those moments after she’d said what she said. I felt a burst of sudden feeling for her as I saw the look in her eyes but I pushed it away, and all I knew was that I wanted to hurt her as much as she had hurt me. I looked at her icily and reached across to turn the nightlight off without saying a word.

 

 

The next three nights I’d go to bed and leave the door ajar, the nightlight untouched. I was too angry to want to see her or want to talk to her, at first. But the heat of the moment fades soon enough and you know that pride isn’t worth losing something wonderful.

 

 

The moment I flicked the switch and turned around I saw her standing at the foot of the bed.

We looked at each other for a moment. ‘I’m sorry’, she said. ‘I didn’t mean to call you a- you know. I don’t really think that either, I was just confused and angry and… you know.’

‘Okay’, I said.

She looked at me. ‘Where were you the past couple nights? I mean I get it, we both needed to cool off and…’

‘I was here’, I said cruelly. ‘But I kinda had company, so…’

I felt a rush of revulsion even as I saw the words, and the shocked, blank look in her eyes filled me with a sudden tenderness that dissipated every little remnant of anger I felt and made me feel disgusted with myself.

‘I’m sorry’, I said quickly, my voice much softer than before. ‘That just now wasn’t true. I just wanted to hurt you there for a moment, but seeing you… I couldn’t bear to, you know. I’m really sorry, it was a horrible thing to do-‘

‘Damn right it was!’, she snapped.

‘I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry for that and I’m sorry for the night before and I’m sorry for not coming all these nights-‘

‘Stop’, she said, her voice tired. ‘I don’t want to fight, let’s not fight. Let’s forget everything except that you told me you loved me, and I told you I loved you back. And I didn’t say anything else, and we were content with that much.’

‘I do love you’, I said simply. ‘It was really hard for me to say cos I’d never said it before to anyone. But I do.’

‘I do too’, she said. ‘Look, be there tomorrow night, okay? Just make sure you’re there.’

 

 

The day barrelled past.

Night fell and I walked to my room, locked the door and turned on the little red nightlight by the bed.

‘Turn around’, said a voice behind me into my ear.

I turned around slowly.

Lindsay was on the bed behind me, sitting up on her knees. Locks of dark hair fell over one of her eyes, but her hair was neatly tucked in behind her ear on the other side. Her eyes gleamed playfully, but the little smile on her lips was expectant and almost silly, painfully self-conscious. She was wearing a black slip that hung from narrow straps off her slender, freckled shoulders. The red light formed dipping shadows that played across her collarbones, and reflected in her eyes, giving them a sort of blazing vitality.

I looked at her unmovingly and uncertainty flickered across her face, the uncertainty of someone trying to push away the sudden thought that something you’d been sure would turn out well might be ending in an unexpected disappointment.

She smiled a little wider, a little more self-consciously.

I couldn’t say or do anything. I was overwhelmed with sudden realization, what happens when your brain has trouble really realizing that so many things that you’d dreamed of were actually happening and could actually happen, that everything was suddenly so different and would never be the same.

‘Well, will you kiss me?’, she said timidly.

I pushed away a lock of hair gently, brushing her face with my fingertips. She smiled hesitantly, looking at me with a sort of complete trust that made me feel a little weak, and parted her lips a fraction. I moved in and kissed her lightly, a little nervously for a moment, but then we both sunk into the kiss and rolled over on the bed. We kept on kissing, long, hard, breathless kisses. Somehow we both seemed to feel a certain overpowering gravity in the situation, like this was something vitally, crucially important and serious, something that was a really huge deal.

We pulled apart, breathing heavily, and looked into each other’s eyes, staring deep into them urgently, like there were so many things we wanted to say in this moment that couldn’t be said in words, like we wanted to feel this moment and somehow looking into each other’s eyes would be looking into each other’s souls for a moment that might finally bridge that barrier between, like we wanted to record the feelings we felt from the looks in our eyes and remember it forever.

 

 

1

 

She had an almost panicked expression, like she was desperately trying to show no emotion and pushing away a tide that was trickling through enough to make her lip wobble a second, like she was desperately looking everywhere else but at me to avoid the betrayal of eye contact.

‘Look, I’m sorry, okay? I just don’t think I could bear saying anything right now. I just can’t bear everything not being normal. I don’t want to say it because saying it will make it feel like it’s true. Hearing myself say it will make it irreversible. I wouldn’t be able to bear that.’

‘So then what? We spend tonight acting like nothing was up? Because it’s hard? It might be the easy way out now but do you want to have that regret forever, being sad over every minute wasted just because it was hard?’

‘No!’, she said, her voice breaking. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know, just hold me.’

 

 

The next few weeks were perfect.

Daytime seemed like some kind of dream, filled with our own secret happiness but one where we floated through, just going through the motions.

We’d rush upstairs every night, going to bed so early our parents were bemused, making stupid excuses about being tired from studying or school or whatever; the few hours of red-tone monochrome, in a 10 by 10 space, outside of both our worlds, the hours where we felt alive.

 

 

It was a week earlier when I’d turned on the light and the moment I saw her I knew something was wrong. She was trying to keep her expression monotonous, but I could tell from her drawn smile and the despairing look in her eyes.

‘Lindsay?’

She nodded, a little gesture of hello.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Umm.’ She blinked. ‘Well, uh, we’re moving. Moving house.’

‘Wait, what?

She looked at me. ‘My family is moving. My parents decided already. You know there’s no argument you can really make against something like that without sounding like a crazy person, and I know if I risked it all anyway and told them they’d only think I was crazy and it’d be more reason for them to move, so-‘

I cut her off. ‘When?’

She slumped into the bed, her expressionless demeanor suddenly cracking. ‘Next month.’

‘Okay’, I said. ‘What’s going to happen to your house?’

‘Some other family is buying it’, she said. ‘A young couple with little kids.’

‘Okay’, I said again.

We both sat there silently for a while, not looking at each other, not saying a word.

I finally broke the silence. ‘Do you think-‘

She looked up at me and looked at me desperately. ‘That we could ever see each other even if we were elsewhere? That whatever it is that unlocks our worlds is us and us really wanting each other, and not that we happened to be in a place in the universe where it all lined up?’

‘You don’t think so’, I said.

‘You don’t think so either.’

We both waited a moment, our hearts sinking, trying to think of straws to clutch at but knowing somehow, deep inside, that there weren’t any, that there wouldn’t be any no matter how much we thought and how hard we looked.

‘So what’re we gonna do?’ I said finally.

‘I don’t know’, she said. ‘What can we do? I guess we’ll just have to hold out hope. That maybe I can come back here, when I’m done with school and college, or something. Maybe that fate will again direct the both of us to another spot like this in our worlds, maybe our college dorms will also line up…’

‘No, they won’t’, I said. ‘This was a miracle. That’d be an impossibility…’

‘They might’, she said vehemently. ‘This was fate and if fate ended up making this impossible probability happen once so we could meet each other it could just end up doing that again, couldn’t it? You never know-‘ she stopped mid-sentence, as if she’d run out of words, and just stared at me for a moment. She opened her mouth to speak, her expression fervent with belief, and closed it again, and then she seemed to suddenly drain of vitality, as if that was the moment when the fantasy she’d convinced herself might turn out to be true suddenly came crashing down.

‘Lindsay-‘

Don’t.’ Her voice cracked. ‘Please don’t try to comfort me, don’t say anything.’

 

That was a week ago.

 

 

1

 

I kissed her lightly, and we sat huddled together on the bed for the next hour, not talking, me playing gently with her hair where it fell over her forehead, just taking comfort in feeling each other, solid and warm and real, next to us.

‘So we have only one week left together’, she said slowly. ‘Before I have to move. And we don’t know if we’ll ever see each other after that. We don’t know if we’ll be able to come back to these houses…’

‘But that’s the plan’, I told her gently. ‘To buy or move into these houses in our respective worlds the moment we grow up and get jobs and become able to.’

‘But we don’t know that’, she said. ‘We don’t know if these houses will exist by then, or if some repair work will happen or some other change will happen. Or if we won’t fall for other people over the next many years, if we won’t convince ourselves as we get older that we must have been some kind of dream or hallucination and move on with ‘real-life’ people, people in our own world. Or if one of us may get sick, or get in an accident, or die, or anything. We don’t know. The only certainty we have is this week, and that we love each other now.’

We both spoke in soft, unemotional voices- not the voices of someone in despair, but the voices of someone who was sad but accepting, and thankful of what we’d had. And right now that was how we felt. We’d had something so unexpectedly, irrationally wonderful that it felt callous to be angry at it not lasting longer.

‘So what do we do tonight?’ I asked her.

‘Just hold me’, she said. ‘Just hold me now, and let us forget about the future and goodbyes until that last night comes. For now I’m perfectly happy just sitting here, together. Until we can’t stay up any longer. Don’t turn off the light.’

 

 



Revolution: Two Years Later

A look at a Muslim country that also toppled a long-serving dictator to sweep in democracy but two years before the the Arab Spring began, and where the Maldives is now.

The Maldives.

You’ve probably heard of it either as an idyllic, beautiful tourist destination known as a popular honeymoon destination, or, as it is oft-advertised, as a shining example of a peaceful transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The former is true. The latter? Not even close. The overwhelming feeling is that the Maldives has left behind one dictatorial regime only to transition smoothly into another. Only now, after so many people had worked so hard to supposedly bring democracy into the country, felt celebratory at having accomplished something as momentous, something to even be proud about on the international stage, the idea that we’ve just gone from the frying pan into another, spanking-new pan is a bitter pill to swallow that’s not going to sink in easily. To an international media that had loved the narrative of the people of the Maldives rising up to bring about a peaceful change from an evil dictatorship to seeing the Light- one that could be lauded and held up as an example- the idea that this new leadership could be more of the same just doesn’t seem very nice.

What exactly is the problem now? It’s that, barely two years into our supposed new democracy, the handful of people elected into positions of responsibility have carried out the kinds of gross abuses of power much derided in the previous regime as hallmarks of a corrupt dictatorship.

Named by Newsweek as one of the world's ten best leaders and a hero. Heh

If you consider the fact that the previous dictatorship was widely talked about a ‘democracy’ and taught so as such to us in our own schools and in articles we read until the protest movement against it began, the idea that now again this is democracy being a masquerade for dictatorial leadership isn’t that surprising. It is one that is endemic from the top-down, with the president, charismatic former activist Mohamed Nasheed, himself also being guilty of some of the same things he campaigned so vociferously against in the previous presidency. From maintaining control of the state television and radio networks against the original agreements made to hand them over in 2010 and the orders of the courts to do so, to appointing cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval even when the law clearly says so, up to carrying out foreign and local policy programs without the consensus of pretty much any other body whether parliament, ministries, or experts and even carrying out campaign travels on state funds, something he had spoken so strongly against before he came into power. He also pushed together local council elections, in a move much advertised as a victory for democratic rule in the Maldives- creating local councils for islands and atolls in the Maldives for the first time and having elections for local citizens to be elected into the council. Only, once the councils were made which would govern every individual location, he created an office of ‘presidential advisers’ to be put into each of these councils, that would report to him directly. With many of the people elected into local councils inexperienced and not particularly qualified as well as with the apparent seniority of a government official in their midst, these officials have a considerable say in local affairs. The supposed victory for democracy only allowed stronger control and micromanagement of the nation by the president, in a move which while legally okay is in practice leaning dangerously close, once again, to dictatorial policies.

However, this isn’t even the major problem facing the country. That would be the functional plutocracy- or oligarchy, if you will- made up of the members of parliament and high-ranking officials and judges, that currently pretty much control the Maldives as a whole.

Early protests against the Parliament or 'Majlis' bills, where protesters sarcastically kept a 'Majlis Fund' donation box for people to chip in five-cent coins.

The parliament recently attempted to pass an MP privileges bill- voted to pass it, actually, but then backed down by deciding to delay and edit it under unexpectedly fierce public pressure- which would give them a monthly salary increase that alone would be four times the wage of an average government employee as well as enormous lifetime pensions and wildly extravagant benefits for a country with a collapsing economy and not enough money to pay civil servant salaries; more worryingly, there were also a number of provisions which went under the radar of public anger at parliamentary financial excesses, such as making it illegal to search an MP, to arrest one in any circumstance before getting express permission of the Parliament speaker and, most crucially, a provision that any ‘criticism or words against’ an MP by a member of the public should be met with a fine, jail term and/or removal from their jobs- a provision that would, just two years into the bright new democracy, would make freedom of speech, expression and the right to protest illegal. Months later, after much of the public anger had subsided, the parliament is again passing privileges for themselves, this time bit by bit instead of as a whole- the aforementioned salary increase was passed last month, days after the Finance Ministry had claimed it just didn’t have the money to pay civil servant salaries. You can find a link to one of the bigger protest groups on Facebook, where the members of the public have detailed and informative posts and discussions, here.

A chart posted up in the 'Majliswatch' Facebook group. This in a time where the economy is undergoing severe problems, estimated one-third of Maldivian youth are addicted to hard drugs, prices of food and basic goods have risen by large amounts in recent times, and the currency is dropping in value quickly due to inflation by runaway government spending.

The corruption and graft in parliament doesn’t stop there, and runs from the companies owned by senior parliamentarians getting lucrative government contracts and tax exemptions to MPs accused of serious criminal offences remaining unpunished. However, the most worrying, probably, is what is now public knowledge that opposition party MPs are being paid off to publicly switch allegiances to the ruling party (link to op-ed that discusses with further details, amid a short analysis of the political scene), supposedly for seven-digit values. One of the senior officials of the ruling party had boasted openly that they could do whatever they wanted once the conversions of MPs reached a level where the ruling party would gain a majority, saying anyone, even the Supreme Court, just try and stop us once we get there! Between the push to suppress dissent by the public and give ruling members protection, along with the push to effectively merge the executive and legislature into a system where their word would be law and changed however they wish, is what would make it impossible for this to be called anything but a dictatorship, or to be called a democracy in any sense of the word.

All this is supplemented by a judiciary where a large number of judges do not even have a high school education and a third of appointed judges have criminal records; and crucially, where the Judicial Services Commission and high judges are corrupt and strongly linked to and work with the legislative branch. Article in more detail.

Things reached a head when a particularly vocal activist for parliamentary and judiciary accountability (her contact here), who had been leading calls and trying to get public and international support for an open Public Inquiry into these matters, was stabbed in broad daylight in the middle of the street during the height of peaceful anti-parliamentary discontent, in a gang attack so far out of the usual M.O. that for many people it counted as confirmation that gangs were being paid off and supported by powerful officials in government. She hasn’t gotten an open Public Inquiry yet, of course, and it’s probably not going to happen if things keep on the way they have been (if international pressure might end up forcing the issue, thank you). For all the talk of press freedom in the current era, it seems that, much like many other governments making a show at democracy you’re free to parrot one of two opposing lines- either the government or the opposition. But when it comes to criticizing or trying to hold the people in power accountable, although you can’t be legally charged or prosecuted for it; the fact that with the aforementioned stabbings, being constantly told by my parents and friends and family to not speak out against the state of things, that it was too much of a risk if my voice ever got out there enough to be a threat and that criticizing people in power would be potentially damaging for my prospects even if it had no impact at all, the fact that knowing all this is making me write this article under a pseudonym because I don’t dare take the risk of putting it out under my real name should be a good pointer as to how free you actually are to criticize.

The major media sources being owned or controlled by influential political figures with agendas, from ones that claim to be independent online news sources to channels that are blatantly political and the national TV networks as previously mentioned, makes protest and activism especially hard. Don’t go to them for news of what’s really going on, any journalists reading this, any more than you’d expect to find out the truth of Mubarak regime crimes through Egyptian state television last year. Civil servants and members of the public fighting against these issues have been labeled in various mainstream media sources as being political party members just creating agitation and ‘drama’, for example. As someone who has been involved in the movement, its made up of activists and ordinary citizens of various political beliefs but a shared anger at the situation- I can tell you that we are not political props playing out roles, as you can see from my criticism of the entire spectrum of leadership. All these issues are widespread in both the main parties, however much each blames only the other. Fact.

And this is why, at the end of the day I still say that, when I’m fighting for my country, I’m fighting to save it from a dictatorship. That is what we have become- a parliamentary dictatorship, a plutocracy controlling the country just as surely and with the free rein and abuses of power that are markers for a dictatorship. Barely two years in and we might have become just what so many of us fought against to begin with, and now with the legitimacy of being labeled a democracy, with the media labeling it a democracy and kids being taught that this is a democracy, there’s the genuine worry that if this situation goes on it could take root and become the norm for the next few decades again, until people revolt and start afresh again.

Why is this story of tiny little Maldives relevant to the world stage? Because while Egypt and Libya see long-serving dictators being toppled by people power here is a case study of a largely Sunni country with a dictator that had been in power for decades, toppled on a wave of people power that swept in the bright hope of true democracy. Let our mistakes be a lesson for the next wave of democracies- to design and instill strong checks and balances as you rewrite your laws and constitutions to create a framework where abuses of power cannot easily fester; to not compromise into doing a half-baked job when building the foundation for your new countries; to use the power of technology and the internet that didn’t exist in the founding days of democracy but do now to create a system where people representation is maximized and those in power cannot undertake massive decisions without a certain format of public approval, especially in small countries; to design technology frameworks from the start with your bright young computer whizzes to make sure that all decisions and transactions, where the government money goes and how aid money is allocated, is publicly visible on the internet in terms that laymen can understand; to link salaries or benefits of government and public officials to an index and create a percentage net (100-125% of average government wage as parliamentary salaries?) above which they cannot increase their own paychecks, and tie in wages to qualifiers such as actually attending and carrying out their jobs to keep incentives for performance much like any business employee would; as well as creating a framework for people to be able to mobilize and have a voice through a means not controlled by a party or state media as part of the new government infrastructure, and a means for allegations of serious corruption or abuses of power to be investigated or public inquiries to be made and penalties handed out by representative citizenry so that those things can’t be covered up or let off by merely a slap on the wrist or sacrificing a scapegoat and leaving the issue unsolved; and to think it over and look for flaws and create a strong, free democratic system that will have the checks and balances to run as fairly and freely as possible instead of just taking the system from some other country and smacking it onto your own. When you’re rebuilding your countries after you’ve toppled your old dictators, rebuild it to ensure you won’t go right back, to a dictatorship again and this time one that you’ve helped entrench.

Why am I writing this article? Because it is my only hope, right now. I hope that the rest of the world, for the Middle East as they undergo the Arab Spring, will learn from the past and build their new countries having learned from our mistakes. And mostly I hope that, in a small country so dependent on imports and tourism, international scrutiny or at least discussion of the situation may do what our activism at home couldn’t and give the government and parliament a push towards being more accountable, or at least towards not abusing their power as flagrantly and persistently.

Those of us that are young and trying to fight for our country and still studying, still getting our degrees in universities around the world, hope that when we come back with qualifications and new ideas we can try and cause serious change- but that’ll be in years from now, after the next elections in 2013 with the one after that being in 2018, by which time things may have taken root too deep to change if left unchecked- so for the now, for the next few years, all of you are our only hope. While we don’t have that international scrutiny yet, I hope that somehow and somewhere this post will help bring it about. So any of you journalists reading this, please cover this story, in some way or the other. People living abroad, just boycott us until things are cleared up, or the money you pay for that holiday will keep on being used to screw the people of the country over. Please do. All this, it’s all that we can hope for now as we fight for the future of our country.

Edit 10:20 6 Sep 2011: Our president Mohamed Nasheed yesterday justified the enormous spending of government funds on perks and bonuses for MPs and officials while the government declares it has no funds to pay civil servant salaries as being perfectly justified: arguing that high officials, renting out bigger houses and living a more expensive lifestyle, need this salary increase (which will take their monthly wage to 17 times the average government employees wage) as well as other perks.

Edit 9:13 5 Oct 2011: After major citizen activism and pressure against huge pay bonuses while civil servants were being unpaid, extra taxes affecting the poor being levied and the economy near collapse, resulted in a court order verdict demanding the extra pay amount be with withheld, the executive and parliament completely ignored the court verdict (as they have had previous history of doing) and went ahead with it anyway.

Contact a fellow activist who’s been in the activism much longer and harder than I have, and will know much more on facts and details, on Twitter here.

Another activist here.

A similar blog post here.

If I have made any factual mistakes or gotten any details wrong, do let me know and I will correct it.


Valley of Lilies

Valley of Lilies

Part One

Chapter 1

There was a beautiful cloth doll propped up against a cardboard box of rubbish outside a run-down set of flats; she had hair of red yarn, and a little snub nose, and her voice when I heard it in my head was a pleasant, young voice, with the optimistic innocence of untainted youth- innocence of eighteen once, innocence of fifteen now, but without the lightly ringing, raucous aftertone of a real voice; but then again it was only in my head after all. She didn’t say anything- she saw me and read my mind, and blushed, and laughed, and sighed, and didn’t say a word. I looked at her with wonder because dolls didn’t talk, or so I thought; and because it’s always easier to think back to forgotten pills than to open your eyes to magic, even though I believed in magic.

I was walking home, through a series of old apartments, rusty railings and grimy walls and drying, dripping clothes on indoor lines visible through the dirty, cement-specked panes of glass; and among a pile of rubbish left out by a doorstep, alongside tied-up black bags of waste food and a row of dark beer skittles in a group like a pile of bottles, using a cardboard box full of tiny broken toys and old dirty rags and drawn-on papers as a pillow and a sofa, was a beautiful red-haired rag-doll with rounded hands and long lanky legs ending in little oval feet wrapped in soft felt shoes; her skirt ending where her knees would be if she had had knees, shoulder-length hair of red woolly yarn, unblinking, wide-open grey eyes.

I felt so sad looking at her. The throwing out of dolls always made me sad. It reminds one of the temporary nature of love. As a child you love something so much, so completely, with all your heart- as a best friend, a mock-baby, a playmate, an eternal guest at every tea-party, and you know it loves you back just as unequivocally, and with more permanence- for as you get older you get bored of her, and then embarrassed of her, and then hate her for no fault of hers. You throw her out because you change, and morph into age, and loath to give all your heart freely… but she always stays the same, and waits hopelessly as she collects dust in a corner and is thrown out to become a nest for the rats or a home for the birds, still waiting for a reciprocated love again.

I knelt down in front of the beautiful little thing, and touched her cheek lightly with the curved inside tips of my fingers and sighed at her beauty and how lonely she would be; and how horrible the world was, a world where losing the ability to love wholly with all your heart is seen as the marker of transition from childhood to maturity, and I sighed, and she blushed, and giggled, and sighed.

I jumped, startled, and checked myself and looked at her again. She tilted her head up and looked at me and spoke to me in a laughing voice.

‘Yes, I’m magic,’ she said. ‘Is it that unbelievable?’

I looked at her, at her eyes, her nose, the slight upturn of her left lip in a half-smile in such a human expression, the pale rosy flush of her pale fuzzy cloth face.

‘You’re not going to leave me here to be thrown away.’ She said it as a statement. ‘The disposal here is straight to an incinerator.’

‘Do you mind if I pick you up?’, I asked carefully.

‘Well, I can’t exactly walk down the street with you’, she said. ‘Other people can’t see me move. Other people can’t hear me speak.’

I reached out a hand to her waist gingerly, and she shifted slightly and stood up a little straighter. I put my other hand on her waist and tried gently lifting her up a few inches first, and her head lolled backwards and she half-screamed. I quickly put her back down.

‘Lift me up like you would a child’, she said through almost-clenched teeth. ‘One hand between my shoulder blades.’

I moved my hand, the palm of my forearm supporting her back, holding her, and I could sense her discomfort by the stiff way she was in my arms, arching her back so that only my hands and the base of my arm near the elbow touched her. She seemed to hate the indignity of being carried like a child; her face was flushed, her mouth set. I gingerly held her in a way that my body didn’t touch hers, but when I extended my arms she sighed and laid her head across my shoulder and I heard her say ‘I’m so tired’ inside my head.

Chapter 2

 

The walk home was silent and awkward. As the doors to the elevator of my apartment closed, her back straightened again; her face regained the expression it had lacked when other people could see, she became alive again and tilted up her head to look at my face.

I pressed the button for the thirteenth floor. The elevator creaked, dropped a millisecond, and started rising ponderously upwards.

‘What’s your name?’, I asked.

‘Ann’, she said.

‘Like the one from Green Gables?’

She smirked. “She had auburn hair. Mine is red.’

I laughed.

‘Ann, like the doll. From the cartoon’, she elaborated. ‘I’m not an Ann, I just got the name because of the obvious similarities.’

The elevator laboured to a stop, overshooting a few inches before suddenly dropping back to the correct level. The doors clanged open. I moved her to one arm, wrapping it around her waist, and fumbled in my pocket for my keys. She let out a snort of laughter. I took out the keys, opened the door, and looked at her.

‘You act like you’re a teenager’. I was asking a question.

‘I am a teenager’, she said. ‘I’m eighteen.’

I was curious. ‘You mean as in it’s been eighteen- you’ve been here for eighteen years?’

‘No, do I look that old and worn-out to you?’. She sounded slightly affronted. ‘I’m eighteen in my head. My soul is eighteen.’

‘Do you have a soul?’, I asked.

She looked up, and her eyes looked hollow all of a sudden, sad and dead and unsure. ‘I should’, she said. ‘God isn’t that cruel.’

There was an awkward silence for a few moments as we both stood up at the doorstep, me with guilt, her looking stricken, lost, confused.

‘Come in’, I said, breaking the silence. ‘Oh wait, yeah, stupid of me’- I was holding her at the time. I carried her inside and gently put her down on the sofa, and went back to close the door.

‘Do you live alone?’, she asked.

I turned around.  ‘Yeah, doesn’t a good look around tell you?’. I gestured at the living room. It was small, and a mess. One of the walls was covered by an old-fashioned wooden bookshelf. The TV opposite the beat-up, overstuffed sofa was old, and a fine layer of dust, unaffected by the perfunctory weekly wipe with a rag, had settled inside the grooves of the speakers at the sides of the screen. There was a low coffee-table in front of the sofa, with a half-closed laptop accompanying, of course, an empty coffee mug, with a dark ring of condensation formed around the base forming a broken circle on the smudged, fingerprints-stained black glass off the table-top.

She straightened herself up on the sofa, propping herself up on her palms, and raised her eyebrows slightly, looking pointedly at the table in front of her; then she shrugged and let out a loud sigh in the infuriating way which seemed to be universal female lament for the sorry state of men.

‘What, I wouldn’t keep a house where I live alone all spick and span and sparkling, would I?’

‘Yes, yes, of course you wouldn’t’, she said, still in an exasperated voice, in what was a very exasperating tone. She shook her head to herself a few times, and then spoke up a bit more brightly. ‘So what do you usually do now at this time of the day?’

‘I, uh… eat dinner’, I replied.

‘Great, I’m starving’, she said, closing her eyes and leaning back against the sofa. ‘What’re you having?’

‘I’m gonna go microwave some pizza.’

She rolled her eyes, and after a moment looked slightly guilty and forced a light laugh. Then, speaking carefully, in a measured tone, ‘Can you bring a plate for me too?’, she asked.

I nodded.

She slid off the sofa and stood up. As she made her first steps, I looked at her in surprise.

‘You can walk?’

‘When nobody else is around, yeah…’ She walked over to me. Standing up, she barely reached up to my chest. She must have been only just above four feet high. She looked up at me.

‘I’m sorry for seeming rude’, she said, earnestly. ‘I’m not too good with people. I don’t really know too much how to act. I’m clueless, and I was covering for it with silliness.’

I smiled. ‘I’m only twenty-one, you know. I meet tons of girls who act that way and who’re your age. No big deal, really. I’m cool with it. I’ll go put the pizza in.’

I took two slices of pepperoni off the carton and plopped them down onto my plate, the molten cheese stringing over my fingers. I was eating at the table for the first time in days- I was more used to having my meals in front of the television watching the evening football. She was seated facing me. I had taken some spare cushions that were too hard for me to use for their intended purpose, and used them as a stable way to prop up her seat at the table.

‘Want some pizza?’, I asked.

‘Yeah’.

I took a fork and spoon this time, and attempted to manoeuvre a slice of pizza into a position where I could harpoon it with the fork and lift it over to her plate. As I reached out to fumble with the pizza, she butted in. ‘No, no, I don’t eat real food, remember?’

I looked at her stupidly. ‘But you said you wanted some pizza.’

She sighed, and began patiently. ‘Remember how any little girls you’ve known feed their dolls at tea parties? Sadly, that’s only how I can eat. You need to do that, put some food on my plate, and I’ll eat.’

I raised my eyebrows at her, then proceeded to try and spear an imaginary slice of pizza on my spoon and fork- a much easier task to negotiate than a real slice- and act out plopping down a slice on her plate. She primly sat up straight and started eating with also invisible cutlery, cutting off small pieces of the pizza and gingerly putting it in her mouth, before chewing slowly and swallowing cautiously.

A minute or so passed in silence.

‘’Hey, how come you talk anyway?’, I eventually asked.

She smiled mysteriously. ‘Our life finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, good in everything; and maybe a companion, a friend, in a me?’

‘Since when did dolls read Shakespeare? Let alone quote him wrongly and in completely the wrong context?’, I questioned, laughing.

‘Since when did dolls talk?’, she responded instantly. ‘Not too great a leap of the imagination, is it?’

I thought it over for a few seconds.

‘So which one is your favourite?’

‘Antony and Cleopatra’, she replied. ‘Yours?’

‘Macbeth.’

‘Yeah, I liked that one too.’

‘I also liked Romeo and Juliet. The poetry.’

‘The language? The great declarations of love?’ She grinned. ‘Should’ve known you were a hopeless romantic from the minute I walked into your apartment, what with the shelf full of books.’

I ate my last mouthful of pizza and stood up. She also stood after eating one last piece. ‘Thanks for the pizza’, she said. ‘It was really delicious.’

‘You’re welcome’, I said blandly.

She waited there, standing at the table and looking at me as if she wanted to say something. I looked at her and raised my eyebrows questioningly.

‘Do I… So, do I stay here? There’s nothing I can do outside… I mean I can’t move or talk anywhere else, and I’d probably get thrown away if you just left me outside…’

I gaped at her. I hadn’t thought of that angle of things. And as I looked at her in surprise she tapped her feet on the floor and swayed a little from side to side, looking up at me with a hopeful expression.

‘Umm… well, yeah I guess so’, I said.

She smiled. Outside, the low red rays of the setting sun slanted in through the closed window, creeping slowly across the floor, resting for now just touching the sides of her feet.

‘So… will you be sleeping in the bedroom?’, I asked.

‘No;, she said. ‘The whole bed would be too big for me anyway. The sofa is very comfortable.’

‘Are you sure?’, I asked, for politeness’ sake.

‘Yeah, I’m sure’, she said patiently. ‘Alright, it’s still early, what do you usually do from now until you sleep?’

‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘Different things different days? But tonight I’ll probably watch TV. There’s a footie game on at 7.30, in like ten minutes or so… Would you like to watch?’

She smirked slightly. ‘Twenty-two guys chasing a ball. What’s not to like? I think I’ll just read tonight. Do you have any good books for me to read right now?’

I pulled a book of the shelf with a dramatic flourish. ‘How about… a courtroom thriller?’

She took the book from me.

‘The Case of the Velvet Claws?’. She arched her eyebrows over the thin paperback, then suddenly grinned. ‘Haha, I get it, velvet claws!’

I grinned back. ‘I never noticed that before, you know. But that’s kinda like… One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’

‘How so?’, she enquired.

‘Cuckoos don’t have nests. Get it?’

‘Oh yeah…’ She turned the book over. ‘Perry Mason, attorney-sleuth extraordinaire, and his faithful secretary the demure Della Street… Sounds simply sensational.’ She sounded sceptical.

‘No, Perry Mason is totally awesome’, I said. ‘I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school after I read these books… Until I figured out that your average lawyer wasn’t as high-minded and honourable as Mister Perry Mason.’ I grinned. ‘Figuring out that all lawyers didn’t have a gorgeous secretary with a perfect personality also helped.’

‘Hmm…’ She said thoughtfully, ‘alright, I’ll take your word on it.’ Holding the book tightly between both hands, she disappeared into my room. I fell into the sofa and turned the TV on.

Chapter 3

 

I stepped out of bed and went outside to check on Ann from where she was sleeping on my sofa. It was easily big enough for her, and she was curled up under a thin mattress, her face buried into a pillow that was over half her size. She moved groggily as I peeked my head out of the bedroom door, and lifted herself up on her elbows.

‘Hello’, she said sleepily. I stepped out and waved at her, then went to the bathroom to freshen up before work.

I brushed my teeth and washed my face with cold water. After lathering my face with shaving cream, I realized the blade was blunt, and opened the cabinet by the mirror to take out a new one. There, right next to the bottle of minty-green Listerine on the second shelf was a little bottle with red and white capsules with ‘One every morning’ written with a black marker on it.

I looked at it ponderingly, distrustfully. It really was quite unnecessary to follow it now. There was really no danger involved. I hadn’t taken one for the past five days, unable to bear the nausea that would set in by dark when I did. Side effects. The world takes too much medicine. Maybe that’s why everyone on earth seems crazy. I ignored the little cylinder of dark glass, and picked out a new blade from a packet in the bottom corner.

I shaved, took a shower, and went back outside after changing into a clean T-shirt and office trousers. She sat up sleepily as I stepped out into the living room.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

She cocked her head and looked at me hesitatingly for a few seconds.

‘How long before you go to work?’, she asked.

‘Another hour or so’, I replied.

‘Are you gonna be busy for that hour or so?’

‘No’, I replied. ‘Why?’

‘Umm… My hair is all tangled up, and I can’t hold a brush…’ She paused and looked up at me. I motioned for her to continue.

‘Can you brush out my hair for me?’

I looked at her in surprise.

‘My old owner used to brush out my hair every morning’, she said. She sounded almost apologetic.

I said nothing.

‘As a friend?’, she said hopefully.

‘Yeah’, I said. ‘Sure’.

She sat up, and patted the seat next to her on the sofa.

‘Let me go get a hairbrush’, I said, and went to get one from the bathroom. When I came back she had bunched up the sheet under which she had slept and cast it to one side, and was sitting with her body sideways, facing away from where I was going to be sitting.

 

Of course, some things were strange at first with our little arrangement.

I’d gotten used to the comforts of living alone- being able to put off having to clean up, being able to open any door any time, or have any door open any time, eating junk food when I felt too lazy to whip up anything and was too broke to order.

Also, having a girl around was a bit awkward, even if she wasn’t a human girl, technically.

Her age was especially awkward. Eighteen was still young enough for me to not really get her sort of girlish enthusiasm and energy about things I found silly… like when she kept on monopolizing the remote to watch MTV; but it was also old enough for the sort of awkwardness that two people of different sexes living together can produce, especially when she was as dependent as she was on me for certain things, like brushing her hair.

I don’t know how she changed or showered, all I know is that she’d ask for the room to shower and get dressed, and then she’d take ages and ages and come out all fresh. But then again, since when did magic ever make sense?

It was strange, and shy, and awkward. I was had been too shy to even talk to girls before. Now here was one living with me, living in my house. But she wasn’t really a girl, but she was.

It was awkward, and strange, and shy.

 

Chapter 4

 

Maria, of course, demanded I go see my doctor. For someone who is ostensibly my sister, she’s a pretty horrible one sometimes. Sisters are supposed to believe you, and believe in you, not just assume things.

‘But look, dear, we both know you’ve been sick.’, she said. ‘Don’t you think it’s a real possibility that this could be just the same thing? Considering?’

‘No’, I said irately. ‘First, stop acting like I’m some kind of freak. I was ‘sick’ a while ago. I’m pretty sure I don’t even need the pills any more. No difference between when I take them or when I don’t, anyway. And even then I wasn’t really that sick. And I never saw things before, did I? Not even like, just visions, as opposed to an entire living person?’

She sighed, opened her mouth to speak, then stayed silent. To her probably every possible form of any such problems were probably one and the same. She probably thought that just because of what I’d had, there’d be possibility of not only me somehow imagining whole new things but maybe even having multiple personalities and running after her with a knife thinking aliens were out to get me. Stupid people with stupid pop culture views on things.

Maria had called Dr Jacobsen before we went over, so he knew what the situation apparently was.

‘Look, Doctor’, I said, as I entered the room. ‘Isn’t this kinda too dreadfully logical for it to be just a hallucination? I mean, look. Wouldn’t she be walking and talking when other people are around if I really was crazy?’

I could sense him open his mouth to say something, but I cut him off. I knew that without a doubt he was going to tell me that no, he wouldn’t use the word ‘crazy’, that’s not what he meant at all, and more drivel. ‘Why only when nobody else is around? Doesn’t that make a lot of sense?’

I looked at him defiantly. He sighed, took his glasses off and wiped the lenses with his shirt, and looked up at me wearily in a patient way.

I could tell he was feeling really self-righteous at the moment, like the master of wisdom teaching a wayward child who is too stubborn to accept the truth about himself. And I can bet that if you had asked him that exact moment if he was feeling self-righteous he would have denied it. You could read the sanctimonious idiot with his silly little beard and useless degree like a goddamn book. I would probably be better at being his psychiatrist than him mine.

And sure enough, he spouted some pretentious, pandering lines at me like I was a little child, and sent me out of the office and called Maria in.

I waited outside while they talked for half an hour, and then I went home.

I don’t understand why people are so set.

Is it that impossible for someone to believe that perhaps what you label as this mental problem or that, might just be us seeing something they don’t, that science can’t detect yet? Aren’t all these illnesses with complicated terminologies just labels for a series of symptoms- if you see something that we can’t see or feel, then you’re crazy?

Is it so hard to accept the possibility that there just might be something which they just haven’t discovered yet, which may interact with me and not with anyone else? Magic, for example, the stuff of fairy tales? Can you prove for sure to me that this being something you just can’t see but which I can is definitely not some dimension or aspect that you haven’t discovered yet but something that isn’t real except in my head?

 

 

Chapter 5

 

‘I want to go to that’, Ann told me suddenly.

We were watching television. Advertisements, actually. Of movies.

‘Why?’ I asked her.

‘I’m bored out of my brain’, she said sulkily. ‘Well what do you expect a teenage girl to be doing stuck all day and night in a very male house with nothing to do, and nobody to talk to except when you get home from work at like, seven?’

‘But aren’t you having fun here?’ I said.

She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh yes. Most girls in the world have that kind of social life, I never knew. Go out approximately zero times in an entire lifetime. Big whoop.’

‘That’s different…’

Her eyes flashed. ‘And pray tell me, how exactly is it different? Every other girl in the world is somehow better than me cos they were born with flesh and blood, and beautiful? With this-‘ she pointed angrily at the rough woolly peach cloth of her arm, ‘and looking like some ridiculous mass-produced thing, I should be even further punished somehow by being hidden away locked up inside somewhere cos I’m so ridiculous?’

‘No!’, I said vehemently. ‘Look, it’s just, sort of, a delicate situation to go out together, okay? I mean-‘

Her expression changed suddenly. ‘Wait. Are you ashamed to be seen with me? You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?’

‘No!’, I said loudly. ‘Look, I just mean that people don’t go out with, you know…‘

‘So you are just ashamed to be seen in public with me’, she said icily. ‘Okay fine then. I won’t force it on you. But I’m going to my room now and don’t you dare disturb me while I’m there. Oh, and to while the time, just do this, okay? Go on the internet and google the name Lee Jin-Gyu. And Uwe Mitzscherlich.’

‘Who are they?’ I asked her, as she got off the sofa and walked stiffly towards the room.

‘Men with more guts than you’ll ever have’, she said coldly. Then she reached the bedroom, with the door closed, and stopped in front of it.

‘Can you come and open the door?’ she said, still trying to be icy, but her voice cracked.

I went over and silently opened the door for her and she walked in stiffly, shaking. I suddenly felt weak at the knees, devastated, struck with sudden sorrow at her hurt and her frustration at not being able to make an exit, to need me even when she didn’t want to, when she wanted not to, for the little things, like opening doors… And quickly, as she entered, I quietly closed the door behind her to spare her the pain of asking me again.

 

I went over to my laptop, as she had asked me to, and searched for those names… and reading about them I was struck with both a sense of guilt, and a sudden realization. Both the names she had told me about were people who had been in love with something they’d been close with, something that wasn’t human to the outside world either… both stories were about people who had decided to spend their lives with those loves, publicly marry those loves.

And in the parallel that Ann drew between us and them instead of a hundred other stories, I felt a little dazed, a little shocked. Because what I realized was that, in all the time we’d spent together, all the time we’d lived together, she felt a certain way, and she wanted those feelings to be reciprocated. And I realized that, in all the time we’d lived together, all the time we’d talked and joked and played games, I did feel the same, like I’d found someone perfect, someone who I’d have thought couldn’t be true, was just a figment of my imagination, if I didn’t undeniably just know in my heart that she was real, she was magic. And that I wanted to go out with her. Even if people would stare, and even if we had to act one way or the other so that people wouldn’t suspect anything.

 

So I went over to the bedroom and knocked lightly on the door.

‘It’s open, of course’, she yelled sarcastically from inside the room. ‘It’s not like my hands can lock it anyway, is it? Cos I’m not a real girl, or at least a real girl the way you call it?’

I walked in. ‘I’m sorry, okay? That’s not how I meant it. Really.’

She glared at me from the bed. ‘So how did you mean it?’

‘I read about those people you told me about’, I told her seriously.

She looked at me, a flashing look of sudden understanding, of the same sudden realization that I’d known what she’d said- revealed?- in that moment, and then we looked away from each other.

I looked at her. ‘Let’s go out. Today. Now.’

Her eyes lit up, a bit in relief, but also at the unsaid implication that flowed between us now, that I knew, she knew, she knew I knew, and that we were still fine, we were still going on with it… that we were implicitly going on with it.

‘Now?’, she said, the token doubt rendered unconvincing by the thrilled tone in her voice. ‘Isn’t it too late?’

‘No. It’s seven. It’s not like you have anyone who’s gonna ground you even if you get home late, do you? Come on, let’s be a little impulsive!’

She grinned. ‘It’s so unlike you to be impulsive.’

‘Oh well’, I looked at her steadily. ‘I do act unlike myself sometimes. With you.’

‘Haha.’ She smiled. ‘Now get outta the room. I gotta change.’

 

 

Chapter 6

 

So we went out. People stared at us, but neither of us noticed.

The strange proximity that outings like these forced upon us had made this day, this outing, awkward for the both of us. She couldn’t walk or move when anyone else but me was there, and when she spoke she made no sound, but I just heard her voice in my head… So I had to carry her as we walked, as we got our tickets in a row where there’d be empty seats to either side of us, so that she could have her own seat, as we walked into the cinema. When you’re a twenty-year-old guy, holding an 18-year-old girl is always… especially when there are romantic feelings between you, especially when those feelings are manifest but still unspoken, and hanging in the air, making it thick, making it hard to think, so you feel tense, and nervous… And when you’re an 18-year-old girl, or when you’re anyone, being at the complete mercy of someone else is always uncomfortable, as is feeling like a burden, or a weight… especially when there’s still-unspoken romantic feelings between you, and you’re already tense, and thrilled, and nervous.

She wanted to get a happy movie, so we went to a romantic comedy- because you know how all of them end, so you knew it’d end happy. And it did.

After that, she wanted to go to a nice restaurant to eat. ‘A nice date restaurant type of place’, she said. ‘We always get takeout or fast food at home. It’d be a nice change from pizza and Chinese. Gourmet food, you know, for a change. Something class.’ So we did. Something classy. A server showed us to a table and I gently put her on the chair opposite mine, and smiled at her.

She smiled back, her eyes still thrilled, her smile shy and nervous.

A waiter walked over to us.

‘What’ll you have, sir?’, he asked, his tone more insulting than polite, his lip curled up slightly as he stared at Ann, and then back at me.

‘He can’t hear me’, she whispered urgently, and I could feel that she wanted to wave, or gesticulate, and that being still when anyone else was around was infuriating her. ‘He can’t see me move, say something!’

I looked around, and beckoned at the man to lean down.

‘My little girl, she demands that this doll is real, and that I treat it like a real person’, I said lightly, smiling knowingly at the waiter. ‘She’s four… You know how kids are.’

The waiter smiled, the kind of overly large smile people make when they are trying to overcompensate for past rudeness. ‘Oh yes, of course’, he said. ‘And, pardon me for asking, but where is your daughter at the moment?’

I smiled that knowing smile again. ‘Oh, she’s out shopping for clothes with my wife, but they might be coming in here anytime, so you know, I gotta do this… wouldn’t want my little Ann throwing a tantrum, would I, right?’

He nodded vigorously.

‘So, what will your order be, sir?’

‘I’ll have a chicken wrap with fries… and a cheese sandwich for her’, I said.

The waiter looked at me a little strangely, then smiled and went off. I looked at Ann, expecting to see a shared conspiratorial triumph at how I’d pulled the lie off, but her expression was cold and hard-set, her lips pursed together; it seemed like she was barely holding back anger, and I was confused, because why would she be angry?

‘So?’ I questioned.

She gave me a hard-eyed glare. ‘You bastard’.

I opened my mouth to speak, but she interrupted me. ‘You bastard. You really couldn’t come up with any other name? Was that a sly dig at me, or something, that’s what you think of me, like some little kid who lives in your house who has to be treated like a little kid, like some little daughter or something?’

I looked at her in shock for a moment, then spoke. ‘No! I swear I didn’t mean anything like that, honest to God, I didn’t.’

‘Then why’d you say my name?’

‘That was just the first name that came into my head! You were there so it was just the first name that popped into my head so that’s why I said it. Happy?’

‘No I’m not!’

‘Well, what’d-‘, I suddenly realized my voice was rising to match her loud high angry silent voice in my head, and quickly lowered my tone.

‘Well, what’d you want then? What’s the problem?’ I whispered at her.

‘Stop being ashamed of me!’, she snapped.

‘I’m not! Stop thinking like that, okay? I like you enough, okay, so stop acting like you think I don’t, or like I’m just putting up with you. A world  like this you have to hide things sometimes, you know? People would think I’m crazy. They’d take me away. They’d take you away from me, too. I like you enough so I don’t want that to happen. So I gotta fake for now, alright?’

She gave me a hurt, dead-eyed look. ‘But why? I hate what’s like, keeping all this in a closet, all this time. I hate it. Maybe if people came out and admitted things they were afraid of admitting because people would think they were crazy, maybe if people did that, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal? Is not taking that risk now taking the moral low road? Keeping our… friendship on the down low, sacrificing something as nice as being able to be open and free, over what people think? I want to be open now. I want to have fun. Maybe then other people will also be there who understand. Maybe people will decide  to understand. Maybe people will think and realize maybe it’s just that you see something they don’t and that it’s not cos you’re crazy, it’s not like they can prove what you see isn’t still real but just something they can’t see, is it? Maybe people will realize that, and we’ll get a Nobel prize for making people realize that and people they just say are crazy can be free and open too. Maybe I’m being silly and unrealistic now, okay I am, but being realistic… maybe there’ll be other 18 year old girls who’ll actually be willing to believe I’m real? To be friends with me? Who won’t just be cruel, but who’ll be willing to open to their minds to that? Even if there’s someone who’ll talk to be cos they think it’s a possibility  that I can hear them and love them, even that, I want that. I want that so, so much.’

I looked at her helplessly. ‘I don’t know. I’d love to be idealistic, but I don’t know… but even if we do, it won’t be right here, all of a sudden, is it? We have to wait…’

‘Why?’ she asked vehemently, then slumped, looking defeated. ‘No need to answer that, I know why… it’s a seductive idea though, isn’t it? The possibility?’

‘Yeah’ I said, not whispering now.

She smiled at me, this time genuinely. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know. I feel awful for accusing you. I feel awful a lot of the time. I hate being so out of place, I wish I could just be completely normal.’

‘Chill a little.’ I smiled at her. ‘You let all this get to you too much. Have a little fun. Also, next time, just always assume whenever you think there’s a matter of doubt that I meant it the nicer possible way.’

She laughed. ‘Okay… today I’ll just not think about any of those things and just have fun. How’s that?’

‘Just forget it all.’

‘Yeah, I’ll just forget it all’, she smiled back.

And so we decided to just forget it all. We had our classy dinner at our gourmet restaurant, and we went around the shopping mall, her taking in the sights with a delight that was almost childlike in its intensity, me feeling a sort of rush, a feeling of liberation, seeing people staring and laughing at it, not caring one bit what people thought.

She told me where to go, so we walked around on every floor and every avenue, starting from the ground floor and going up. We stepped into stores with designer clothes, and when she saw that all of them were too big for her, tonight she just laughed and didn’t feel sad, and we’d go on to the next window. And we went on and up, and it was wonderful. We stopped at a customized T-shirt store and she made me buy customized rock T-shirts for the both of us. A Marilyn Manson one for me, she said, screeching with laughter. ‘Your taste in music sucks, you listen to all these soft songs’, she’d said. ‘It’s like you’re fifty, not twenty’, so she’d get me the most outrageously rock shirt she could think of. She wanted to get shirts for Paramore and My Chemical Romance, and one of the Beatles just cos everyone loved the Beatles, and a whole bunch of button-up pins of all her favourite bands, so I asked for them at the counter. The salesgirl, with piercings on her ears and nose and a shock of jet-black hair, looked at me like I was out of my mind as she packed a bunch of girls’ rock shirts and band pins into a bag and handed it to me over the counter. I just smiled at her awkwardly.

She’d always wear those from then on, long T-shirts that reached up to her knees, with bold stripes of black and purple or red or blue, and band logos, with five or six pins on the chest. For all that she called me old-fashioned and boring, I kinda liked her in those, sitting curled up on the side of the sofa, with tousled hair and colourful array of rock-band pins. It seemed to evoke having a feeling of being young and exciting again, going out and falling for girls and following current music… things I hadn’t done in forever.

We walked on through the mall, her excitement contagious, joking with each other, me in whispers, her out loud, but only I could hear her, walking by the shop windows and looking inside them, one at a time, and then suddenly she stopped. I said something, but she didn’t reply, and then suddenly I noticed what was inside the shop window of the Toys R’ Us we’d been walking in front of, and why she was-

I put her down, gently so that she wouldn’t notice.

She was silent, staring through the glass at the box with the brand-new doll with bright red wool for hair and a little snub nose, and rosy woollen cheeks in a little plaid dress.

‘Ann?’, I called softly, after a while.

She didn’t turn around, but answered a little hoarsely.

‘Yes. Can you please give me some time alone right now?’

‘Can she ta-‘

She cut me off, but with a sudden sharp pain in her voice. ‘Please.’

I stopped, and was silent for a moment. She kept on staring at the unspeaking, unmoving face that was identical to her own, except that it had a fixed smile to her wavering vitality, and plastic eyes to her stricken, shining ones.

After a few long moments, I spoke again. ‘But… how can I leave? Won’t you fall if I leave you there?’

She didn’t say anything, but sunk a little bit lower against the glass in my arms. I felt a sudden burst of concern, and pity, somewhat, but I knew how she felt, somewhat, to some degree, I guess… if lost was what she felt, and confused, alone, like she didn’t know what she was for, and what was real, then I did. Sometimes I felt like I was staring across the glass at someone who was like me, but different.

I squeezed her shoulder lightly. ‘Come on away, Ann’.

She did. Suddenly, everything we’d decided to forget had come rushing back… I tried walking around a little more, trying to cheer her up by showing her funny adverts and signs on the stores, but she was blank and silent and lost, so we just went home.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

I turned the key and walked into my apartment. To my surprise, it was dark. Ann was nowhere to be seen.

She’d usually be watching television, or in the living room reading, with band pins colourful across her chest, eating popcorn or chips from an empty bowl on the sofa seat next to her, knees folded up against her, the pages almost touching her nose. Twisting a woolly strand of red hair through a folded fingerless hand, folding her hands to grasp the lock of hair, moving her forearm slightly since she couldn’t move her wrist in a full circle.

It was an affected gesture; it didn’t come naturally to her- you couldn’t, not without fingers- but she still always held a long strand of red in the cleave of her folded palm, always turned her hand in that little circle. It broke my heart every time I saw it. She was not a teenage girl, and she never forgot it, light-hearted as she seemed, and every time I saw, my eyes would rest on that continuous circling motion, then blur over with a sort of helpless pity as I would suddenly realize, once again, the depth of her desire to just be a girl… and I’d go to my room before stepping back out to go talk to her. But today she wasn’t there, and it was dark.

I switched on the light and immediately noticed a thick paperback textbook on the coffee-table, lying open face-down, its spine arched, the glossy pages just slightly sticking onto the tabletop as I picked it up, like a lover’s lingering caress. It was a biology textbook, from the shelf, and it was open to the chapter on human body systems. I felt a rush of sadness and pity as I looked at the pages, at the diagrams of a four-chambered heart, the Mandelbrot tree of the lungs, a folded, grey, brain, sparkling with electricity; a womb, cross-section inside a smiling picture of a pregnant woman- a picture, a drawing, less a human than a rag doll, but she had a womb, and a red, curled-up little baby, and she was smiling and happy, and why wouldn’t she be?

She must be in the room.

A glistening tear fell onto the page, on to the face of the happy, smiling, swelled-up woman- I tilted the book to let the drop fall, and it ran down, from her eyes through her foetus to the bottom of the page, and for a second it was like she, too, felt the sadness and sorrow that both the sad and sorrowful occupants of this house felt. I thought I should stay in the living room for a while and give her some time alone before I walked into my bedroom. I turned on the television set, and made my way through fifteen minutes of a talk show- the host had invited her beautiful blond wife to the set- before I switched the set off, stood up, stretched, and walked over to the bedroom.

The door was closed. I rapped on it lightly.

‘Come in! The door isn’t locked. I can’t lock the doors myself, remember?’

Her voice sounded bitter and laced with irony. I turned the doorknob and entered the room. She was sitting in the bed, resting her head against my headrest. There was a box of Kleenex beside her, and half a dozen or so crumpled up tissues littered around her knees. The tissues were all dry, all clean.

‘I’ve been crying, but I have no tears’, she stated, in a forcedly matter-of-fact tone.

She stuck out her arms, palms-up, straight out at me, and I saw the cruel slashes of the light pink cloth, the fuzzy strands of cotton peeking out from between the ripped skin. I looked at her in shock, at her wrists, then at her blank, expressionless face.

‘I’ve been cut, but I have no blood’, she said, casually, a dull monotone. ‘Razors to my wrists, but I can’t bleed. I have no blood, no heart…’

She looked at me, a long gaze, her features worked, her lips turned down in a grimace, her eyes full of loss.

‘Why don’t you think of me as a human? As a human girl?’ she asked despairingly.

I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut me off.

‘You don’t really know what anything is, do you? There’s nothing where you can know what it is for sure, is there? You only know about stuff from how you see or perceive it. The only way you know what you are is with your thoughts, what you think, how you feel. If this were all a dream of yours, what would be the difference between me and a real girl except the shape we had? And if in your dreams somehow those real girls turned into looking like dolls, you’d still call them real girls, wouldn’t you? And that’s the same here, isn’t it? I’m a person because I think and feel like one, that’s what I know I am. But you can never really think of me as one.’

She looked at me sadly, her expression resigned, almost… disappointed.

‘Because somehow for you me having cloth instead of flesh in this dream makes me unreal. Some life stuck inside a lifeless receptacle, not the way you can see a whole human girl and think of her as alive, her body and her mind and her thoughts as alive, not as some spirit in a lifeless body. So that’s what I am to you. And that’s what will always keep us apart.’

The silence was so thick for a while that it seemed hard to breathe, to breathe in and begin to speak.

‘What do you mean?’ I said finally, my voice cracking a little.

She looked at me, a long, searching look.

‘All I want is for you to love me, but I’m just a doll’, she finally whispered, her voice wavering. ‘All I want is for you to hold my hands, but I have no fingers, all I want is for you to kiss me, but I have no mouth…’

‘Don’t say that’, I said.

‘Why shouldn’t I?’ she replied, her voice full of anguish. ‘It’s true!’

‘But it doesn’t matter’, I told her.

She looked at me questioningly, even a bit dispassionately.

I leant across and kissed her softly on the mouth, lightly, just pressing my lips against hers. She was static, silent, a statue, and I pulled away after a long, searching moment, to look at her.

She was looking at me blankly.

‘I’m sorry’, she said. ‘You see my lips. They can’t move, my mouth. I can’t yell, or shout, or kiss, or make a sound.’

‘But you can talk to me.’

She sighed. ‘All that you hear me say is me speaking inside your head.’

I looked into her eyes. ‘But you can also eat, and drink, and talk. All you need to do is imagine it. Magic works in strange ways. We’ve got to remember that.’

She smiled. ‘Okay… Kiss me.’

I leant in and kissed her again, and this time she closed her eyes, and the kiss was forever.

 

‘This love will never last’, she said morosely, later, perched up at the end of the bed.

I reached over and kissed her lightly on the lips. ‘Don’t be silly. Why wouldn’t it?’

She smiled sadly.

‘Do you know? When we were little girls ourselves. Little doll-girls, our first years. As kids, not in my teens like now. We had best friends, little girls our age, human-by-birth girls, who talk to us and play with us and dress-up and feed and complain to us.

‘Then they grow up, and they go for boys or school or other things. Cool things. And they stop liking us. That’s the only human experience I’ve had before, so can you blame me for worrying that someday you’ll find other people and cooler things, some girl like you an object of your desire, and just leave me? Convince yourself that you were just imagining things and hide me in some attic so that you wouldn’t have to see me or think about me, or so that you could live guiltlessly with someone, a friend or lover, in this apartment, blocking me out in your memory?’

‘That could never happen’, I told her.

She sighed.  ‘It doesn’t even have to… Everything in this world is pulling us apart.’

‘What do you mean?’

She put out her hands. ‘Time… I’m a girl with a body that will grow old and worn in a few years. You’ve seen… little girls keep them and play with them and it’s only a few years, and they’re old and worn. But you, you’re still just beginning the bloom of your health. And soon everything will change. And humanity, not what’s in your soul but what’s in your blood. That part of being human which we don’t share. You may love me now, but will it ever last? With me, this way?

‘I don’t know… I wish I had a voice, a real voice. One that made a sound. I wish I had real eyes, with colours, eyes that can dance and sparkle, that you can look into. I wish I had real skin, real nerves, so I could feel your touch not just in my head, but physically, in my stomach, and in my knees.  I wish I had real legs, beautiful long legs, so I could walk away from you and towards you, and you could see them and not only love me, but want me.

‘But for now everything is pulling us apart, and it’s only a matter of time, so let’s make them wonderful.’

 

Part Two

Prologue

Back in those first couple of weeks after she’d moved in, I’d woken up one night for a glass of water. I’d opened the door to see the back of her head silhouetted against the flickering bluish light coming from the television in the living room.

The screen cast a flickering blue-white shadow. I walked over groggily to the fridge and got a glass of water. Ann-silhouette turned her head around at the click of the door.

I walked over to her. ‘Hi’, I said sleepily.

‘Hi’, she said, sniffing.

‘Why are you crying?’ I asked.

She glared at me and gestured at the screen. ‘What, is your heart made out of stone?’

I looked at the screen. ‘Titanic?’

‘Yes’.

‘It is sad’, I said, trying to sound a little more consoling, or a little more understanding. ‘But it’s just a movie, you know. I mean, of course you know that. But it’s not real.’

‘It’s as real as I am’, she snapped.

‘But you are real. Really, actually real.’

‘And so are they’, she said. ‘In some world. Did you know that all stories, every single story that has been ever written or drawn or filmed or told, is actually real? And they happen when you write them down, but in some other dimension, some other frame of existence.

‘That’s the infinite universes you learn about- the infinite number of stories in the history of the world… It’s why fairy tales are always written with happy endings, happily ever afters, and why sad stories break my heart.

‘And if you ever tell anyone a story, if you ever tell anyone our story, even, you have to give it a happy ending, in a valley of lilies, riding off into the sunset… even if that doesn’t happen, even if it’s not true… so that in some other world, those people, you and I and anyone else, would be happy.’

 

 

Chapter 1

 

I thought that was it. I thought that was the beginning of a time when we’d be together, and we’d be happy, but it wasn’t. In a way, it was like things coming out in the open, expectations being reset. Before, when things were unspoken, just being with each other seemed enough; the thrill of it hung in the air, it was something exciting and breathless and new and surprising, and because nothing was spoken, no promises made or implied, that was all we wanted, that was enough.

Everything went downhill, rushed downhill.

Everything seemed to be falling apart; the fury of feeling between us seemed something angry and bitter, the wrong kind of depth of feeling.

Perhaps that’s what happens, when a relationship is finally crystallized, named, labelled. Suddenly each of you has a right over the other. Suddenly there is expectation, and the burden of trust. Suddenly things are meant to be a certain way. Perhaps jealousy and bitterness was inevitable… And in a way I understood, and I wanted so badly to tell her that I understood. But how difficult is it to tell someone that you understand things that they’ve never expressly said, and possibly don’t even realize is what they feel?

So I could never tell her, and she could never know. At first things were fine, but then she’d get snappy and irritable whenever I went out anywhere, spend long stretches of the day sulkily, moodily, reply sarcastically whenever I asked a question… She got more and more distant, and she’d pull away whenever I leaned in for a kiss, or ignore me if I sat on the sofa for all the hours she spent watching MTV until after I’d gone to bed.

She hated not being a girl with flesh and blood, that she couldn’t live life, that she didn’t have friends; she hated that I could go out, that I might meet other people, that I would see other people; she hated the television she watched, and the full-blooded, partying, tanned, healthy girls her age she saw there; and strangely, the more she longed to be human, the more she’d make disparaging remarks about those human girls, or these human people, or me. And she hated me for the capability of my body to produce hormones, and she felt bitter and angry, cuttingly, so often, telling me that I should just go out and be with someone who I could physically be with, cos that’s what I wanted, wasn’t it… And being together wasn’t wonderful anymore. It wasn’t thrilling and exciting and awkward and unbelievable, like it was before. At times it felt like we couldn’t stand each other, and that our life at home was just a routine- I’d get home from work, put her imaginary pizza on a plastic plate on the coffee table by the TV where she’d be, eat silently, and go to bed after exchanging heartless good-nights…

And the worst part was that I did  understand. That I also did feel lonely and out-of-place in this world full of people. I could have told her that. I could have also told her that to me, she was the most human thing in my life, if humanity was personality and soul that hers was the only one I felt close to, the only one that I could really open up to. That if she was jealous of flesh and blood, she shouldn’t be, because with her there what appeal did everyone else have to me? They were all things I could have said, that I probably should have said. But I didn’t, because it’s uncomfortable, and we always tend to put off things that are soul-baring, honest, uncomfortable for afterwards, even until it’s too late; and because it’s hard to tell someone you understand things they’ve never expressly said, and don’t even realize is exactly what they feel, and why they’re feeling what they think they’re feeling.

And because each time, when everything seems about to pile up, then there’s one day or one moment that’s loving, or tender, one night where everything seems all right, or one conversation where we could talk and bare our souls and tell each other that we did miss each other, and decide to make things better from then on. But then again the next day things would be back, but the memory of those good moments are enough to be a hope that they’d come back, enough to show that beneath all of the now what really was that we were still very much in love… So for all those reasons we put it off, and let tensions grow.

And the tension near to breaking, every day.

 

On this day I got home from work a bit late. I came home with good intentions. I was feeling cheerful. I’d brought pizza and her favourite chocolate muffins, and I was determined to be effusively romantic, really make things up, close the chapter on bitterness and go back to how things were.

I rang the bell.

‘Come in’, her voice rang, sarcastically.

I walked in and smiled at her, gesturing at the bags I was holding in my hand. She didn’t look at me.

‘Where were you?’

‘I was a bit late at work today’, I told her.

‘Really?’. Her voice was cold.

‘Yes, really!’, I answered heatedly.

‘I’m not stupid’, she said icily. ‘I’ve seen stuff like this before in the movies, it’s not like I was born yesterday. Late night at work, huh? With who? Some human girl in your office?’ Her lips curled up disparagingly as she said ‘human’, as they did so much lately.

‘Oh, get over yourself’, I snapped. ‘What’d you think, that somehow having you in my house nowadays was gonna do such things to my libido that I’d have to do it with some girl at work only now after years of going to work?’

‘But-‘, she began, and then stopped. ‘That’s not how I meant it.’ Her voice didn’t sound angry anymore, but a little pitiful, and for some reason the sudden change in her voice, how it had sounded weak and almost pathetic, made me get even angrier somehow, some anger at how she could accuse me of things and then just change her tack and it was okay each time, cos I never said anything, but mostly misdirected, confused anger at a sort of sick feeling at how she seemed hurt, faded, anger at how we weren’t what we could have been, for all those so many silly stupid pointless meaningless reasons…

‘Why do I even bother what you have to say?’ I retorted, flaring up. I was really angry, and I could be intentionally cruel when I was angry. ‘Since when did your opinion matter? You’re just a doll. You’re not a person.’

She looked stricken as I said it, as if I’d slapped her.

I felt a pang of horror at her expression. But sometimes anger isn’t red-hot but ice-cold, and makes you cold and cruel and heartless, so that you feel a sort of grim satisfaction in hurting the other person as much as you possibly can. And all the while it hurts you back.

The words you say are deliberate, meant to cut and hurt, and speaking those words hurts you so much more than whatever it was that first made you angry. But even as a dull horror rose up in me and I fought back the urge of tears of sorrow, I continued, deliberately, coldly, sneeringly.

‘You keep acting like you somehow believe that you’re one of us, when you’ll never be, and you try to treat me like you’re an actual girl, like you have a right over me, when I’m the one keeping you in this house when you know you’ll get thrown away if I wasn’t keeping you here.’

Her face looked pale, bloodless. She opened her mouth, closed it, her lips trembling. She opened her mouth again, and gaped for a second, and closed- she closed her eyes, and finally managed to say in a trembling voice, barely a whisper- ‘Alright, kick me out if you have the guts to. Let’s see if you have the guts to leave me to die.’ And from the blankness of her eyes I could tell she was shocked at my coldness

She looked up at me defiantly, her chin trembling. I turned away from her. I felt sick with guilt and a dull sense of horror, but I was still seething.

‘Okay, fine’, she said defiantly, then her voice cracked, ‘I’m not sleeping here. I’m not living under a roof with someone who doesn’t want me here.’

I suddenly felt nauseous, flooded with guilt and a desire to make up, but somehow I didn’t say a word.

She turned around and went into my room.

 

Chapter 2

 

I rang the doorbell.

Maria opened the door. Her dark brown hair was tousled and she looked sleepy as she swung the door open, but her expression changed to concern as she saw me.

‘What happened?’

I didn’t answer the question directly. ‘Can I sleep here tonight?’

‘Sure’, she said, gesturing at me to come in. ‘But why?’

I hesitated for a moment, then answered. ‘I had a huge fight with my girlfriend.’ It is strange how when you’ve hurt someone you care about, when you’re too angry and too stubborn to apologize or to make things up, is when you’re most fierily loyal to them on the outside…

At the moment I was still wracked with guilt. Putting myself out there, deciding to look like I was crazy to stand up for her like those names she had told me about, even if she wouldn’t see this and couldn’t hear it, felt like something wonderful. It was the realization that everything would be all right tomorrow, and better than ever… the realization that every pair of lovers come to after their first cutting, hurtful fight, when they realize what is important; and at that moment it felt like something I had to say, something I had to put out there-

‘Your girlfriend?’, she asked, sitting down at the dining table by a mug of coffee she had evidently been drinking.

‘Ann’, I said defiantly, but with a sudden rush of liberation, of happiness, at finally-

‘Ann?’, Maria repeated quizzically.

‘Yes, Ann. The redhead you saw in my apartment.’

She stared at me with a confused expression, then suddenly her face turned to one of concern.

‘Oh.’ She sunk a little into her chair. ‘You mean the doll…’

‘She’s not a doll’, I said.

Maria sighed.

‘She isn’t’, I repeated forcefully.

‘If you say so…’ She stood up and went into the kitchen. ‘You want them scrambled?’ she yelled over the crackling of the stove.

‘Yeah’, I yelled back, and a couple minutes later Maria walked in and set a plate in front of me, sitting down at the table across mine. She watched me eat with a sort of detached but caring expression, with a funny look in her eyes, and when I was done she came over and tousled my hair gently.

‘Look, you go to sleep here now, okay?’, she said tenderly. ‘Just sleep everything off. You can take my room. I’ll sleep over at your place. Make sure nobody robs it or anything.’ She chuckled. ‘Just give me the keys and go to bed, yeah?’

I looked at her gratefully. ‘Thanks’, I said. ‘They’ll be in my coat pocket.’

She slung a handbag over her shoulder as she rummaged for the keys, and opening the door, she turned and yelled at me as I was walking towards the bedroom. ‘Love you! Good night!’

‘Love you too’, I answered, and she stepped out.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

I knocked cheerfully at the door.

‘Come on in!’ came Maria’s voice from within the house. I opened the door and stepped inside.

‘Hey!’ I greeted her cheerfully. She was fully dressed sitting on the couch. She’d probably woken up much earlier and had just been waiting for me to get home to leave.

Her reply wasn’t very enthusiastic. I grinned at her and stepped into the living room, then noticed the door to my bedroom was open.

‘How come that door is open?’ I asked. ‘I thought Ann was sleeping there. She was supposed to be…’ A sudden rush of excitement flared in me. ‘Maria. Did you see her? Did you somehow talk to her? Did she talk to you, I mean? Is she angry with me?’

Maria’s face was impassive, defiant; her lips set.

‘Say something already!’ I said impatiently. I was feeling a sudden rising apprehension. I’d known Maria long enough to know when things were a bad sign.

‘Sit down’, she finally said. I did.

‘Look, you’re sick, okay? You’re imagining things. You know that’s true, you know if you really think about it this isn’t real, okay? And the longer that doll stays here the more you’re gonna be believing it. You can’t have feelings for a doll! I’m your sister, I can’t let you be like this!’

‘What did you do?’ I interrupted icily. ‘You’re making me nervous, cut to the point, what the hell did you do?’

She edged away a little bit further. ‘I gave her away’, she finally said in a steely, composed voice. ‘I had to. The longer she was here the more it was going to reinforce your hallucinations and I couldn’t do that. Not as a sister. I couldn’t.’

‘Wait.’ I said. ‘Gave her away? What?’

‘I gave her away to an orphanage. Last night.’

‘What is wrong with you?’ I yelled. ‘Why would you do that? How could you do that to someone?-‘

She interrupted me. ‘It’s not a someone-‘

‘I’m a someone!’, I almost screamed. ‘And so is she! But even to me, how could you do that to me? When I’d told you we’d had a fight only yesterday? What kind of a sadist are you, to not just do this but to pick your timing like this?’

Maria looked terrified, but her face composed. She was blinking away tears. ‘I did what I had to do’, she said monotonously.

‘Get out.’ I said. ‘Now. Tell me which orphanage you dropped it off at and then leave, and never talk to me again. Never.’

She picked up her bag and walked away towards the door. ‘I don’t know which orphanage. I called one of those charity collection trucks…’

I swore loudly. ‘Get out of my house. Now. And my life. For good. Leave!’ I told Maria coldly, and as she left, closing the door behind her, I collapsed onto the sofa.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

I looked for her everywhere. I looked for weeks, and I couldn’t find her.

By now, months later, I had almost given up hope. Every day I still walked past the spot when I came home from work that I had that one day, and every weekend night I drove off to institutions or homes to look for her. If only just to say sorry, if only because I loved her.

 

One morning, there was a knock on the door.

I walked over, almost fully dressed for work, but with my tie still loose around my neck, my shirt still untucked. ‘Who is it?’, I said loudly.

There was no reply, except for another knock.

I turned the key and swung the door open, and in front of me was a girl. A human girl, tall, my height, with long wavy auburn hair that reached up to beyond her shoulder blades, with light, flushed skin and a little snub nose, and blue eyes, eyes that danced and sparkled. She was wearing a red dress that reached up to her knees, and had legs that seemed to go on forever. And she looked at me with an expression that was incredulous and incredulously happy, and didn’t speak for a while; then she smiled, and spoke.

‘Hi’, she said, simply, but her voice full of joy, almost playing with the words. ‘Oh my God, I have a voice! A real voice, and I can hear myself, like a sound. It’s me!’

I looked at her, staggered as it sank in. ‘I’m so sorry for what I said then’, I told her.

She smiled. ‘I know. I could see from where I was. I forgive you. How could I not? It’s part of being human, for us to have had fights, to have hated and loved and torn, maybe… I’m sorry too. I felt so jealous, I felt so bitter feeling that you couldn’t want me, that you’d forget me just like every little girl did and move on, and I’d have nobody again. And I wanted so badly to be human, after so long where I’d been fine with what I was, I was almost fooling myself that I was, but then each time I’d see you, or every time I’d see girls on TV or the like, I’d look down at myself and see what my arms and legs looked like, it’d hit me in the gut again, and I didn’t want to be anymore, and you can only keep fooling yourself for so long…’

Our eyes met, longingly, despairingly, hopefully.

‘I wish I’d told you then, that I understood. That you didn’t have to worry. That you were as human as anything in my life. But we’re stupid that way, aren’t we? Stupid humans, the both of us, keeping what we felt to ourselves.’ She smiled at the words, as the human, at the us, as I continued, earnestly. ‘Knowing that we might lose someone forever at any moment, but still not telling them what you would just because it’s hard, or difficult. Being jealous, or bitter, or sad, or alone.’

We were silent, and we looked at each other, just looking, me amazed at her, her amazed at herself.

‘So… you came back?’ I asked.

She smiled again, each smile a little dazed, like the thrill of being able to smile as a human was still something new, still something wonderful each time.

‘I came home’, she said. ‘So… can I come in?’

‘Come on in’, I said, and she swept inside the door and into my arms.

After what seemed like eternity, we pulled away. ‘Wow’, she said breathlessly. ‘This is everything I’ve ever wanted. I can kiss you back, and I can feel it in my stomach, and in my knees… and I can feel that you love me, and that you want me, and it’s wonderful…’

I swept a lock of hair away from her eyes. ‘I missed you’, I told her softly. ‘I felt… the worst I’ve ever felt. Worse than I knew I could feel. I looked for you everywhere. Maria told me she gave you away, and I looked everywhere I could for you, but I couldn’t find you, and now I can’t believe you’re back.’

‘You hurt me a lot’, she said.

‘I know.’

‘But… let’s talk about the future now, not the past…’, she said, her voice a little vulnerable, a little hesitant. ‘I came back. It’s magic and I don’t know how it works, but I came back. And now this story, will have a happy ending, and we’ll live happily ever after, won’t we?’

‘Yes’, I told her, earnestly. And I meant it.

This story I’m telling you now, this story, it will have a happy ending. It has a happy ending. Just like any fairy tale, just like she told me. In whichever world it is that we are… we’d live happily ever after.