After Shanghai, I caught a cheap flight to Bangkok. In the sky, I met a group of Australians who joked about North Korea and Kim Jong-il the whole time and who said “g’day mate” for my pleasure. We parted ways at the airport then I travelled to Ko Phangan, where I think I was roofied at the Full Moon Party. Good strangers took pity on me, and one of them reminded me of Kimia. This is what the group of girls told me later at breakfast, on the beach, pretty girls, sticky already with the nine am humidity. I saw now that the girl sitting across our small, square table looked nothing like my little sister. But when she smiled so gracious-like and thoughtfully, that was when I noticed it.
“You gave me tons of life advice,” she said, with that innocent, fearless tone only nineteen year olds have. “We’re from Vancouver by the way,” she added. “You’re Canadian too, right? You said washroom yesterday instead of bathroom.” Her voice had that bright, elastic West Coast warmth.
“From Toronto,” I said.
“You also said that all that putting my career first was extremist feminist bullshit.”
They were like words rising from a grave that hadn’t been dug for me yet.
“I said what?”
“And you said, strangers are only scary if you’re someone to fear. You said that like, um, what did she say again?”
She’d turned to the others, who were blank and beautiful and worthy of love—I thought, why did I ever leave my city? These people exist where I’m from too.
“She said that, like, people are only scared of other people if they’re, like, fixating on some evil part of themselves.”
“You’re wise as fuck,” the third one said. The fourth one stayed silent in my presence, and the other girls made fun of her for it. She didn’t care. She’d keep staring at me only with these black eyes.
“My sister, by the way,” I finally told them. “The one you reminded me of, Kimia. That was her name. She’s dead.” I needed to see their faces when I said it. I needed it the way I need to be fucked by strangers. But why?—I thought of him, and how his ears must have burned.
“Oh my God.”
“I am so sorry.”
“We’re so sorry.”
“Oh my God, so sorry,” they said.
They were young, and so sweet. They travelled with their parents’ money and had bodies that bended with confidence in strange lands, that spoke of such perfect, disgraceful privilege—and yet their smiles were not to be mistaken for empathy.
“I’m kidding,” I said. I couldn’t cling to the truth. I didn’t want to. “My sister almost died. But she’s alive,” I said. I lied. But the key to lying is to latch onto that idea as if it were the only fact in this world worth knowing.
I stayed with them a while longer. I learned that all four of them were trained Yoga instructors. They were travelling to India next, for further certification, but had decided to stop first in Thailand.
“The food is amazing here. Have you tried the stir-fried noodles?” they asked.
Which was when I thought of that famous novel turned movie, about eating and travelling, which was when I thought of how food had not been a concern of mine not once on this trip, and then I thought of the last supper that I had enjoyed.
My whole life, I told them, after a few more beers, my whole life, has been a giant sacrifice.
“For who?” one or all of them had asked.
“To who, you mean.”
They laughed. I laughed too, but by then my soul felt like wine. Like I had turned water to wine, and that’s the opposite of it all, isn’t it? Why did he do that? Why did I know a story that did not even belong to my people, and cling to it more than I did my own? Why would you turn water to wine, Jesus?
In the café, he sits. He stares. But I am still in Europe. In Asia. The images of countries I never visited stream past my eyes.
While in Thailand, I had very little money. Those four lanky, creature-girls who lounged on the beach like sirens, and whose beautiful white arms and names, amid the anonymity of everyone, surfaced, slowly, like individual badges by which I could tell them apart; they told me I was wise. I told them they were beautiful and light and airy. I watched them in the morning, walk from their tiny, rented bungalow to worship a sun-god, positioning their bodies into perfect statues. One position was called Child’s Pose, where they prostrated, and their arms like wings lifted then fell snugly to their sides. I was reminded of my father. Once, I had seen him prostrate, pray to Allah, but religion was a barred phenomenon in my household —though my mother wore Allah on a gold necklace around her neck and though my eldest sister, in high school, picked up the expressions, Allaaaaaah and Say Walahi—and so with my father, I never spoke of religion. But I watched these girls, and it was no different, how they moved their bodies for meaning. I’d looked down then at my cup of instant coffee, and seen my arm covered in ugly, long, black hairs, made wispy now from so many years of waxing but still there.
“They don’t turn paler in the sun? I thought everyone’s hair turned paler in the sun,” one of them had said, with thin, turned down lips and judgement that was only accident.
In the afternoon, we watched the waves and talked about tsunamis.
“The end of the world is coming. That’s what I think,” one of them said.
“I think.” My voice had aged. It sounded broken to me. Their four, young bodies around our little, wooden patio table, leaned in closer to me, and I tried so hard not to envy them, or hate them because they were nice, they were so nice to me.
“This obsession with the end of the world. It’s not the end, end. Sometimes I think we’re so afraid of the Earth continuing on without us that we have to believe we’ll see it all go down with us.” It was a thought I had never thought until that moment with the sun above us, and our waiter, small and tan with big teeth, delivering our stir-fried noodles and chopsticks.
“You know, I always thought maybe that’s why insects scare us so much yet we’re like, so big. Like, they always survive. No matter what. And we won’t.” The quiet one with dark eyes spoke. She ashed her cigarette into the ashtray between us with one leg folded against her chest.
“They’re more evolved than us, for sure.”
“Right. I guess. In a way.”
“They know how to survive.”
A gust of wind blew through us, tipping their empty plastic water glasses. Mine was filled with water, still, and stayed put.
“Survival of the fittest,” another one of them said.
I watched the cups fly off the table and be pushed farther out onto the beach, where a group of young men walked in flip-flops and bathing suits, laughing at the sudden surge of sand that had got into their eyes and mouths. The girls watched them walk, and the boys noticed them too. They smiled at each other, and it calmed me. The guys walked up the steps into the restaurant to speak with us. And I, the only dark head among the fair, knew my role as the exotic one to taste.
I followed the Yogis a while longer. “For fun,” I followed them along the narrow streets where the Thai prostitutes sit and blink and hope for johns they don’t want to fuck and I thought, I am not like them, and again, and again, nearly every feverish night, they led me dancing with them. Again, the girls, sirens with long hair, their transformation by then for me was complete and they danced on borrowed legs, they belonged someplace deep down below the water, where they could breathe.
But it was comfortable and familiar to be surrounded by women instead of men.
“I was raped once,” one of them revealed to me one night. I told her I was so sorry. “I’m not,” she said. She smiled, so brightly, and let her hair hang loose. “We all were. That’s how I got into Yoga. That’s how I met all these girls. A support group, sort of.”
But then the shadow of the man came to us one night. We slept on hammocks inside of mosquito nets in a makeshift cabin on the beach in a different town. The girls had gotten drunk on the beach with another group of tourists, waving their oh my Gods like boobs at Mardi Gras.
“Teach us how you do it. I feel like everyone here wants to fuck you,” they’d begged me, sipping on warm beer, giggling and bubbling the way nice girls are taught to.
“Just don’t give a fuck. Just.” And when people start to view you as wise, you start to believe you are. “Just feel the weight of you until that becomes your power.”
Then in the ocean-loud, pulsing heat of two am, the shadow was slipping into one of their beds—the one whose body she claimed had been filled with water at birth instead of bone, the one who had reminded me of my sister that first night these raped women had saved me from a mayberape, and she was laughing. “What are you doing? How did you find me here?” She laughed again.
“Shhhh,” he said. “Shhh.”
I listened to them. She was quiet. He was entirely silent and I wanted to tell her never, ever trust a man who makes no sounds in bed. And I wanted to know if she was okay. But I was afraid. I think back to that night where maybe I could been made a hero—I felt that I should have stopped it. She never fought him. I never heard a no. I never heard a condom wrapper tearing. I heard only the bones of a knee crack, the sandy floorboard as he lifted his body into the cot – the darkness that was absolute. And the breathing I heard was my own. And I thought of the sister I was never kind to. I was never kind to her, as a little girl, or teenager. And I didn’t know, had she died a virgin? Had she ever done a thing she didn’t want to do? And I hadn’t known her favourite colour when she died. She was so decisive and yet so changeable. Did she regret it, her last favourite, in her last second?
The voice was not hers. She was lost, in some other ethereal land, dark yet orange, she was blind.
It was him. The voice of my shadow-man. I tumbled out of bed and ran, I ran foot against floorboard to the wet, cool sand. Water rushed over my legs, and groups of tourists still partied farther off on in the distance. And is there any place so infinite as a dark black sky over dark black water? I saw fire in the distance, where the people danced a dance that was an omen and a sadness. My nightgown, wet, billowed around me. I was waist-deep now. I shot my neck backwards and looked straight up at all the stars, and it was the closest to outer space I’ll ever feel, the closest to God I ever got, the loneliest, the most insignificant I have ever felt. And I wondered if this is what she wished to touch on too early, too curious for her own good, my sister.
“Are you okay?” The man shouted from the edge of the beach. And to find solace in a man, I thought, like my mother, my older sister, my friends, is the worst cowardice of all.
“Kora! Did you have a nightmare! Come back!” One of the girls called out. She was made shadow next to him.
I started to laugh.
“You’re supposed to sing me into the ocean not out of it, mermaids,” I shouted. I was laughing or crying. But the waves carried the words away into dark. I swam sideways, hair matted against my head towards the party that when I reached it was just smoke and a few voices speaking intensely in French. They stared up at me the way raccoons do at dawn.
I imagined making love to the shadow-man, him folding me like a sheet of clean, white paper, having a baby. I wanted to call A— and ask her why I kept fantasizing for things I did not want.
“Because you do want them,” she’d have said.
But she’s wrong.
In the morning, the one whose mouth slanted downwards talked about how much bigger her boobs had gotten since she was in high school. Another complained of a sunburn. All of them begged me to come.
“You can be a Master, too,” they sang.
What I never would have revealed to them was how much I did not want them to leave me. The following morning, the sky was the color of jaundiced skin, and one after the other, their warm lips kissed my tired cheek while we watched the Pacific Ocean crash against our dirty feet.
“Did you know?” the darkest-eyed one said, “did you know that apparently in the Odyssey by Homer, that whole time that Odysseus travels the seven seas, or whatever, there’s no mention of blue. It’s always grey.”
“Yeah. Blue wasn’t invented yet.”
“Are you stupid?” They laughed like bits of light falling from the sky. “Not invented! That doesn’t make any sense. You mean, we hadn’t like, developed the idea of it yet so then we couldn’t perceive it.”
“Same thing. That’s what I meant.”
A long pause and a momentary sliver of sun escaped behind a cloud.
“Do you think the world looked like it does today every day then, to them? I mean like, how much power do words really give a thing?”
They turned to me for wisdom but I was only twenty-nine. Their bodies crowded me.
“I don’t know,” I said. I wouldn’t cry.
“We’ll miss you,” they whispered. The one who looked and breathed like Kimia slipped a paper into my jeans pocket. Another said, “I did it last night. I did it and it was magical.”
How close to the edge is the magic of life? But the time for wisdom was finished. Instead, to each of them, like a slow, unsteady cat stretching awake, “Be careful,” I said, and thought of my mother. “Byeeeeeeee,” their voices pierced the humid air between us as they packed into a cab and left for the airport.
I phoned my parents. This was the first time since England I had spoken to them. My mother cried. My mother called me flower in a language I hadn’t heard spoken since March. Then my father came on.
“Are you happy?” he asked. I remember so distinctly because I couldn’t remember him ever asking me before.
“Since when do you care?” He said nothing. I tried again. I said, “I mean.”
“You think this is cool? What you’re doing? I know what you’re doing,” he said.
“What am I doing?”
He did that Iranian thing with his mouth to express shock and disappointment… something about the tongue against the roof of the mouth. So much shame in one sound. I felt small and full of rage.
“What am I doing? Tell me. What am I doing?”
You know, you know.
Sofia Mostaghimi (MO-stah-GHEE-mee) is a fiction writer and educator. Of Iranian and Québécois descent, she was born in Sherbrooke, Que., and raised in Mississauga, Ont., where she mastered the art of hanging out. She currently lives, writes, and teaches in Toronto, Ontario.