Presence and Absence / Tomoé Hill

As women, we spend a lot of our lives laughing or crying. I wish we spent more time in stillness, that place between the two—neither happy nor unhappy, but content. Stillness has traditionally been the domain of men. A woman cannot be still without being seen as passive but with the anticipation of anxiety; a man who is still is calm and collected. I am still a lot more now. I breathe, and listen to that breathing. I am not thinking of whale song or spirits or the universe—what I am thinking of is being alive for myself, and the freedom of not caring about being or living up to someone’s expectation. I think of women written by men, and women written by women. It seems to me that men cannot capture the stillness correctly because real stillness does not require them. Even when stillness is fringed with anxiety, as it is in Jean Rhys’ stories, it is that of men gone and women that are on the threshold of a fragile content. This might seem contradictory—after all, most of her characters come across as desperate observers of their own lives, having been once passively active: kept, led, and fucked by men. How could they be content? But being content walks the tightrope of happiness and misery. A certain kind of melancholy allows you to draw deep breaths in the way that constant laughter or choking on tears does not.

That kind of melancholy is as intimate as a lover.

My sister and I once did a cruel thing to our mother: we placed my birth control pills on the kitchen table and watched as she ignored them. That is not quite true. She grimaced but did not look at them directly. Maybe it was the denial of what she knew we were doing at that age, or the disappointment that we were thoroughly American girls who she did not fully recognise, being Japanese—the kind that were not always obedient, wanting to socialise more than study—regardless, we laughed at her. I don’t know what possessed us to do such a thing, unless it was just the possession of the young to do something cruel for the sake of reaction. But this is also not quite true. I spent fifteen years in a relationship where almost every action was cruel, whether intentional or not. At some point intent stopped being important. We communicated in strange languages: weighted silence, emotional manipulation, food. People read accounts of terrible relationships and can’t understand why one person or both didn’t leave. It is because it has become normal for you even though it is not for the rest of the world. But the rest of the world has ceased to exist, and you believe that there is nowhere else to go. So you stay because that is at least a kind of existence, being too cowardly to choose not to exist at all.

And the other people that share this existence with you? They are not sharing a life; you see them as characters in a play, walking on and off. You try and remember your lines, shouting them from the seats below. Then everyone exits the stage, and you are left; alone and waiting for the next act.

 

The meaning of audience participation: to pretend you are part of what is going on.

 

When I left home—the country of my birth and childhood—I stood at the threshold of that bridge that joins the airport and plane and told myself there would be no return. This may have been the only promise I have kept to myself in life; it has now been seventeen years. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t haunt me in its way. I have recurring nightmares that this is all a dream and I will wake up in a small Midwestern city; never having left nor curious about what or who lies beyond the city limits. But instead, I wake in a bed in one of the great cities of cities and wonder how different the two are, really. We fool ourselves with the idea the grass is greener, or the people kinder, or the culture more to our taste. To assimilate or at least create a place to breathe, is to an extent an illusion. But we change, as do others. We tire of a culture and the grass gets dried up by the sun. And so we move on to the next illusion, another possible world. It isn’t meant to be a world-weary utterance as much as a matter-of-fact observation—if it were not true, we would not move from place to place, attempt new things, or fall in love.

Love is best measured in degrees, like burns or murder. After all, it rarely exists without some pain or cruelty. That isn’t to say it can’t, and I envy those that go through life knowing a love that is light but substantial, or ceaselessly overwhelming in its passion. And yet we consider it often as an extreme: we love wholly or not at all—at least publicly. No one wants to admit their love exists in fragments, that they are greatly content with one aspect while lacking another entirely. We look for all things in one person to start and assume this wholeness continues unabated with a minimum of tending, as if it were automated—automatic, the heart ironically unrequired. Ticking off a list of ideal traits in a partner, without asking why, how, where, who. I can offer myself up as an example of error, over and over again. I have not questioned or turned away from things that should have warned me, both in the other person and myself. I have wholeheartedly believed the unbelievable and even now ask myself if my desires and instinct are a mistake. Sometimes I think they will land me in a café somewhere, sitting in front of a third fine (brandy)—dressed in shabby finery but well perfumed, a face hovering between the hardness of sexual cynicism and the softness of fading hope like one of Rhys’ women.

To hope is to wait; to wait is to sleep. The dream of love and the hunger for hope. Rhys’ women didn’t starve once their men departed, but they lived with the threat of it: to eat richly was a temporary escape. The reality of coffee, cheap meals, and fines—anxiety is always your companion, endlessly chattering about rent and the future.

 

I thought about what it was I ate after my relationship ended; surprised to realise it was much the same. I drank coffee and ate bread in the mornings. In the evenings, my stomach twisted with worries I would sit with a book and a glass of whisky or wine, having tried to eat something more substantial, often unable to finish. Sometimes I would only eat bread, standing in the kitchen staring at the tiles, knowing it would give me just enough energy. Eating too much seemed like a waste, as there was nothing I did that seemed to require or deserve it. But on occasion I would venture out to London and buy an expensive treat: pastel macarons or rich cheese that I barely enjoyed on returning. The bright colours and pungent scents seemed to fade immediately when sitting on the grey-flecked countertop, aware they would not be celebrated or savoured. Our—mine and Rhys’ women—attempts to fool the world and ourselves into thinking there is nothing wrong are fruitless, but at least they had the freedom to move from one café to another. I never dared enter one, much less a restaurant, on my own then.

The protagonist of Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight: ‘Tomorrow I’ll go to the Galeries Lafayette, choose a dress … buy scent, buy lipstick … [j]ust the sensation of spending, that’s the point’.

 

I felt like her shadow. Do you want to know why a woman shops like that when the threat of having nothing hangs over her? Because—the same as with that expensive meal, those macarons and cheese—we are hoping we can change our luck. We have become desperate gamblers, and every purchase is a roll of the dice, another card requested from the croupier. We buy because we are hoping the next lipstick, perfume, dress, or pair of shoes will cause life to pay out—to save us from ourselves. You might think it makes us happy, but the reality is misery; spending is a flick of the wrist, a card turned, the act of an addict hoping for a solution. Of course we are aware that the strong thing to do is resist: to struggle, fight against the despair that rolls in like storm clouds, leaving us drenched when only a moment ago we thought there was hope. But we are grey compared to the people who walk past us, almost invisible. We apply colour and scent and attire our bodies in new clothes because we wish to be new, fresh, vivid; ready for the new life that we know must be close by.

 

It must be.

 

One of the languages of my failed marriage/relationship was food. Food communicates love and hate, famine and excess. Even the act of whether you choose to eat or not is weighted with emotion.

I am going to tell you a story.

As a child, my father was laid off from a job as an industrial designer, one that he had held for years before I was born. He eventually got it back when the company merged with another, but during that interim, the only income we had was the little he had saved—my mother stayed at home to raise us for some years—and what I suspect was also government benefit. I never knew for certain, because if he had claimed it, which was likely as there were four of us—doing so would have wounded him, but he also wouldn’t have hesitated to put his family before pride. It might be dismissed as particularly male, that pride, but if you can’t provide for those you’re responsible for, it’s always going to hurt—gender is irrelevant. You might wish to give your children everything, but what you want above all is to give them what they need to survive. I can only imagine that my mother offered to work, in the same way I imagine he would have vehemently opposed it. She didn’t find her real independence until later; in those days the idea of marital duty and obedience were pillars that had yet to crumble—she deferred to his being head of the household.

He received a small amount of money as a result of that layoff. With part of it, my parents went out and bought a deep-freeze to go in the back hall, a cream-coloured cube almost as tall as I was, that could have fit at least two of me inside as well as my younger sister. Another part of the money went towards filling it with cans of concentrated orange juice to be diluted with water, hamburger meat and mixed vegetables. Neatly ordered in stacks were small red and white plastic butcher sacks with metal clamp ties, and store-brand—because they were the cheapest—bags with glossy photos of French beans and carrots that looked nothing like the odd nubs inside, just as the frozen block of juice sliding into the pitcher with a slow, grainy, thud did not resemble the pictures of sunny orange liquid on the cardboard cylinders. I didn’t understand very much, only being aware that Dad wasn’t working at the moment or smoking as many pipes in a day, and was quieter than usual. Our mother would make sure my sister and I were especially well-behaved around him. She and I would look at each other, the look siblings share when they know something is Important—with a capital I because that is how children think of adult concerns—but also that they will not be told in detail about it. Yet every day, he would get up at the same time—wash, shave, and get dressed—then go out to look for work. There wasn’t any.

For the most part, daily life was unchanged: we never had the kind of money that meant regular family vacations, the latest technology or fashion. My mother made some of our clothes; a lot of the rest came from thrift shops or outlet stores when they were dingy unpopular places. At other times in our lives, we were sent on a couple of summer trips to Japan to stay with my mother’s family, or to music or German language camp. It was only for my sister and I, or in the case of Japan, my mother as well—my father always stayed behind because he needed to work. It wasn’t to spoil us: rather, it was so we could see some of the world, have exposure to culture and creativity. That, they felt, was worth more than new televisions, cars, and package holidays to destinations where the abiding memories would have been arguments and overpriced t-shirts that announced your level of investment as a tourist. Everyday life outside of school revolved around free things that we did as a family: museums, long walks, listening to music, and most of all, reading. The house we lived in was full of interesting antiques, figures, and paintings to look at, accumulated by my father cheaply and slowly, as well as by long-dead relatives. Because of that different kind of wealth, it mostly felt as if we didn’t lack. How could we, when we could do things like go to the library and fill as many bags as we wanted with books? Our minds were occupied, and we were content in the way readers are content with the world when lost in a book. That contentment is a simplicity, one of the few you can rely on as an adult; it remains the same through the tempestuous years of youth, navigating the unwritten rules and customs of sex and socialization, later—the disappointments of adult relationships.

I don’t know how long the layoff actually lasted: Even as an adult, I mark it from the moment the deep-freeze was bought and filled, to the day my father came in and announced we were going out to dinner. Celebration took the form of a buffet in a strip mall where roast beef, mashed potatoes, and slabs of bread pudding in custard sweated under heat lamps—as did the customers—on a rotating circle of oversized aluminium catering trays. Troughs, my father would joke, but that night it was a banquet. My sister and I must have realised such extravagance must have meant that Dad had a job again. A couple of days later, the brown smoked-glass tobacco jar was full of his favourite sticky-sweet black blend, and I was allowed to hold open the worn leather pouch with the amethyst and silver thistle pin while he filled it, the definitive sign that life was normal again. But until then, I would come home from school most days of the week and kneel on a chair at the kitchen table, watching my mother forming pink hamburger mince into patties. One day I looked at the bag, defrosted on a chipped floral-bordered plate, in my mind already tasting the flavor of overdone meat—a hamburger was cooked until no juice was left back then, and during that time, we ate them without buns or extras, bar ketchup—and felt my throat drying a bit. With the well-meaning tactlessness of the young, I asked her if she couldn’t make them a different shape instead.

She didn’t look at me for a moment, just at the plate of pink mush, now removed from its wet plastic. She didn’t yell or cry. She laughed and looked up and said sure, with that oddly harsh inflection of hers on the s, yet to be softened by more years living in America. That night I was pleased, because my hamburger was shaped like a triangle and didn’t seem to taste so dry. But it has always stayed in my memory, and as I grew older, so too, did my realisation and the subsequent shame. That I could be that tactless. That I didn’t understand what the deep-freeze and its contents meant—or her response, whether verbal or in the gesture of giving me what I wanted. The memory still stings. I don’t think that will ever leave, nor do I hope that it does. But it also makes me defensive. Defensive of my parents, who took setback with what must have been a sense of dread of the unknown, thinking of all the what-ifs that come with the threat of no money and a young family. But also because they knew they had to take what they had and do something in order that we might continue. I suspect they never saw my request coming, in those practical plans involving interminable bags of meat and vegetables.

I ask myself often why I am defensive. Until now, I’ve never told this story to anyone. But whenever I recall it, that familiar feeling rises up—the need to defend their actions to myself, as if the self that is ashamed would have rather been reprimanded, a burst of emotion that at least would have been out in the open. Perhaps that is a cultural and generational peculiarity, for part of what it meant—as far as I could see—to be Japanese, was to be unobtrusive, intrusive to neither others nor even oneself, just as it was to be strong and silent and un-emotional, at least for the unpleasant ones, on my father’s side. Repression is bad enough, but when emotions are twice-repressed, they are as intricate, tightly folded, and contained as any origami figure. And so I am angry at the abiding shame of that childhood transgression, of simply saying what was in my mind. I am defensive of my parents to appease that ashamed self, to make it understand that there is an element of truth in that Larkin poem, but sometimes what fucks you up is for the best.

Is a triangle of meat such an important thing? It is, although I could have just as easily forgotten it. At the time, it didn’t seem terrible to say, and her reaction should have erased that fragment of life from my mind forever—just another mundane exchange between parent and child. And perhaps I projected excess emotion onto it as an adult, in the way adults tend to do with certain memories, part of an unintentional mythmaking. I mentioned it to my mother once. She laughed and said it was amazing what I could remember from that long ago. She remembered, too. But nothing was ever said about the weight of that moment, or if what she really wanted to do was tell me I was ungrateful, that I should have been thankful I had meals each day and didn’t go hungry because of their foresight—dissatisfaction of that sort is the privilege of those with enough. Maybe she has never seen it the way I do, or the memory is another piece of origami in her mind, beautiful and rigid, impossible to unfold. I just thought of that hamburger again the other night when I was sleepless: without wishing to jest, it is something of a Manderley to me, in that it haunts. I recall a scene in Rebecca where the new Mrs. de Winter cannot understand the continued voluptuous excess of food served at tea, such vast amounts for only two people.

Ironically, I think of that excess when I recall the hamburgers, but I think of Barthes, too: a quote about desire being the same whether the object is present or absent. As with desire, so also with the love of families. Love was present—unobtrusive, observant love—in food, whether it was the homemade lobster bisque my father would make sometimes at Christmas when there was more money, or that solitary hamburger and serving spoon of vegetables. It was present in tins of rum balls later sent overseas to me at other Christmases, soaked in so much Myers’s Original Dark that the postman could smell them through the packaging; a wonder they made it through the mail service. And then I think of the opposite—the excess of food and absence of love—and recall another kind of shame. The one of a marriage broken before it started—my own—of rich meals full of show and money, superficially enjoyed but starved of intimacy. Being somewhere in Tuscany at a castello celebrating another couple’s marriage in equally rich and empty circumstances—listening to the dark arguments of distant relations while sipping on a golden dessert wine, balanced as a perfect bell, heavy on my tongue with honey and fruit.

Later, I would find I was cut from that family’s group marriage photo for being overweight; another kind of presence—that is to say, excess—and absence. I remember being gathered with him, his parents, his sister and her new husband on a terrace. I was placed at one end of the group. Several months later, we went to visit his parents. Naturally, her wedding photos had been added to a table full of other such pictures. But the photo taken with the six of us was now five. I was erased. I didn’t ask them why—I knew and kept my shame to myself. I might have been wrong: it could have been as innocuous, as simple as only wanting immediate family—blood relations—bar the new groom. But then why would they have asked me to be a part of the photo? I had been sitting off to the side when they started to gather for the picture. For whatever reason I watched them, oblivious to the idea of being included until N gestured to me, annoyed, to join them—even in my mind, I had expected to not be wanted. After dinner, in the wine cellar where it was held, I stared at my plate and pretended not to care that I was the only woman not asked to dance. By that point, I was already deep in the failure of a non-existent marriage that was only whole in the eyes of the outside world: those origami figures again, a man and woman this time, smiling stiffly. We were crumpled paper behind closed doors but refolded ourselves day after day with the resignation of people who don’t know how to be anything else. No one sees the telltale lines of wear in others if they don’t suspect anything is wrong—but perhaps the rest of us are also too busy refolding ourselves to notice. As we deteriorated our cooking grew more elaborate and lavish.

Hélène Cixious and Catherine Clément say in The Newly Born Woman that ‘[c]ooking badly is also being badly married. … [t]here is a family, household, intimate stench hanging over it all …’. But they also say this is therapeutic, as valuable lessons are to be had. Bad food and bad smells are warnings, but so are good. Cooking was the last raft to cling to in an ocean of indifference that swelled to hatred, the waves rising higher around us. We bought madeleine pans, a brûlée blowtorch, a sous vide machine. I baked cakes: matcha and vanilla bean, almond and blackberry, yogurt and lemon. He wrapped pancetta around delicate pieces of rabbit offal and prunes d’Agen, made his own pasta, cooked huge côtes de boeuf sizzling with fragrant aged fat—enough for four—that left us unable to move in bed. All these culinary excesses were another excuse for us not to touch each other. But we didn’t take that care in our creations because we had vestiges of love—maybe we were hoping it would soften the other into a civil acknowledgment of the mess we were living, an elegant way out. Instead we gained more weight; incapable of looking each other, much less ourselves in the mirror. Cooking well can also mean being badly married—or divorced and still together as in our case. When my nights weren’t filled with dreams of the sex and intimacy I craved they would stray back to childhood, meals created with love—for love—in the hardest of times.

I don’t really have an end to that story. At least, I wouldn’t add on the later happiness of food memories with someone else to that one. It continues—of course it does, since I continue to eat. I spent a year barely eating when on my own, because I couldn’t face much food without someone else. Cooking for myself seemed pointless and anything I could eat without preparation or pleasure meant detaching myself a bit from the past. The first time I went on an actual dinner date after that, I paid. He made a pretense of choosing the wine and complained about our seating until we were moved. Afterwards, he didn’t thank me. On another date with different man, he took me to afternoon tea and I found out he didn’t eat that sort of food, so I worked my way through a tiered tray of cakes and sandwiches, unaccompanied, while he ate a club sandwich. It felt lonely, and I was surprised at just how much it affected me: as if I were lying on a bed pleasuring myself while someone watched me with absolute sexual indifference.

Months later, I went out on a third date with yet someone else. We drank wine but barely ate, something both of us look back on with much amusement. I think we were pleased and perhaps relieved to find something we recognized in the other—that overrode food pleasurably, for once. One of the first things he cooked for me after that date was a roast chicken with lemon and herbs. There was fresh bread and a bottle of champagne. He had an open plan kitchen/lounge so he spread the food on the only table, the chicken resting on a wooden chopping board. We sat on the sofa and ate—the chicken carved at first, but later we tore pieces off with our hands, fingers shining with oil from the herb-marinated skin. We had sex right there, and to me it was the first time in years—even before my ex—that the two combined in such an intoxicating way. Guy de Maupassant has always written about food and sex as well as the intelligence of the woman who represents or acts on her hunger in a way that makes me think he was an acute observer of women and the lust of lovers. In ‘Boule de Suif’, Elisabeth’s richly fleshed body is bursting from her dress just as her hamper full of food is spilling out with game pie, chicken in aspic, rolls, cakes, and wine—enough for the entire carriage, although it is she—the prostitute—who maintains a real decorum that is only a veneer in her well-to-do companions. It might seem excessive and vulgar to some, but at the same time there is a simplicity in food, sex, and their entwined thoughts. What can be more emotionally truthful than the guileless pleasure of eating and fucking, knowing we devour each other like food because we want to be nourished?

We want to be, whether still or devoured, seen or alone. To be. The smallest of words reverberates with the essence of woman.

 

Tomoé Hill is a London-based editor at Minor Literature[s]. ‘Presence and Absence’ is part of her memoir-in-progress titled Normal/Hunger.

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