1680 c/o Sharlene Teo

Do Don't

Sometimes you just don't think, my girlfriend said, and held my head underwater. For no more than five seconds I shut my eyes and gave into the mild pressure of her hands.

Day three: we were vacationing off the coast of ______. Flagrant sunshine, warm water as clear as lip-balm, the flesh peeling languidly and ruefully off my back; sand in slippers, onion skin.

Maybe I wasn't made for the ocean. I felt disinclined toward water- like a mobile phone, or a helicopter. My girlfriend didn't mind. She loved swanning around in a tiny bikini, peach coloured with a print of sickly seashells. I secretly thought the shells looked a little bit vaginal and found the entire swimsuit fairly unsettling, not in a sexy way but in a way that would have made me cry if I were a small child. But of course I didn't want to tell her. I knew she would look away and take offence, the way she did when I offered any criticism of her choices, however great or small. She would look down at her hands, and hate me.

I knew all about counting my blessings and thanking my lucky stars, but the truth was that when my eyes skimmed over her body I found it flatly beautiful, unfamiliar. She was a seal on a rock. Scenery on a postcard, or the ocean from a cabin window. I was neither a chauvinist nor ungrateful; eleven years had simply erased all strangeness. I found her pert breasts and dainty ankles pleasing but constant. Her face was my face; I had looked at her face so much that it became no more surprising than my own features. I referred to her as "my girlfriend" constantly, this her-shaped phrase peppering every conversation. Her presence made me sneeze. I think it was the dust. I had practically forgotten her name. Fifteen-year old girlfriend, nervous, chuckling, with the brown braided hair and the ketchup on her t-shirt. Twenty-six year old girlfriend, Hepburn-crop poised and fanning herself with a flyer for banana boat rides, squinting tenderly behind her sunglasses. I missed the irretrievable wonder, the teenage torpor, that unlawfulness of her. Now adult and too sophisticated for her own good- fat trimmed, perfect. They hardly seemed like the same person, and yet there was no distance by which to measure the change. Like chewing gum on a pavement, I squinted and she merged and merged into my ribs, my kidneys, the hollow of my throat.

We hadn't seen anyone else all day. We could have been the last two people on earth, bobbing serenely in the ocean and now amiably bored on a beach blanket. No voice but our voices. Maybe this way she would have no choice. She wouldn't leave me in some foggy eventuality for someone with broader shoulders and a striking face; a GQ man who never took her for granted and was sufficiently mature-some lantern-jawed fucker who tanned easily, assuming a fine caramel lustre as their bodies fluttered under the trees.

I felt woozy and she felt woozy.

Maybe we should get beers, suggested my girlfriend.

It's up to you, I said. I was half fantasizing about her and the GQ fucker, except that gradually their faces (her face sharply in focus, his face a pastiche of conventionally handsome film stars) were coalescing into a gooey, erotic blob of heatstroke and vagueness.

My eyes must have drooped because she turned around and put her hands around my wrists and asked if I was feeling hypoglycaemic. I said I wasn't.

You always say it's up to me, my girlfriend continued.

It's up to you. I said, and tried to smile like I was saying something witty and droll, but perhaps I was feeling hypoglycaemic. I was definitely feeling hypoglycaemic. I just wanted to lie down somewhere sheltered, cool and comfortable. I wanted to put on some ambient music and pretend I was being born. Being lo-fi ambled into the world like the wisest turtle. Blue-finned turtles drowsed offshore, just out of our line of vision. You could hear them flipping in the water, these elusive hamburgers of algae and webbed feet and old age.

My girlfriend sighed. I could tell she was feeling irate. I stroked her forearm like you would the round skull of a cat; tentatively; handling something too small, untraceably difficult in its dimensions. She moved her arm away, closed her eyes and started talking:

I’m sick of being the one who tries all the time, who makes all the bloody decisions, who steers things, even on holiday I’m the one doing that, and you just sit there, you just sit there, so indifferent, it makes me sick. I could vomit in your face. I could vomit in your hair. I could vomit all over the place.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

You’re not.

She was right, I wasn’t. But it was better to not say things. To sit there with my teeth lidded in my mouth like one of those seashells on her bikini (a shudder) and allow myself to be gripped by a tender terror. My hair was already dry from when we had waded around earlier. I looked down; my body looked thin. I looked so thin I wondered if I would disappear.
I was a chunky teenager, a flapjack from the supermarket, and then it all whittled away, and here I was now. Pale in swimming trunks, my fading handsomeness, and the arrogant sun.

Somewhere behind some shelf in my family home, nestled in a camcorder is a video tape my little sister recorded when she wanted to be a documentary maker, or perhaps she was just bored. About eleven minutes in you can see my girlfriend and I at sixteen, grainy and vivid, sitting nervously around a garden party. Off screen you can hear a punk band consisting of some of my classmates setting off a really terrible sounding ruckus; when you catch a glimpse of them in their oversized t-shirts they look small and silly and young behind their bass guitars. It’s summer, blinding, we are sitting around the grass with some acquaintances I haven’t seen in years and who have drifted off on a sea of salary brackets, planned mortgages, and casual addictions. Enough of now, this is then. My girlfriend-then has braces and messy hair; she has yet to discover she is good looking, or she is only half-sure. I am, as mentioned, chunkier; I look healthy and substantial, like I enjoy red meat and milk. We dislike the camera and wave it away, smiling like smiling how people smile. The too-far-back, documented forgetting, fifteen mundane minutes which have insinuated themselves into the material, with no remaining right or purpose.

My girlfriend got up and there was sand on the soles of her feet, like breadcrumbs. She brushed the sand off her bikini bottom and walked down the beach holding her slippers. From the back she looked small and anonymous, a sleek, angry figure with her cropped hair sticking out all over her head. She didn’t go far; kicked about the water, got back out, sat by some bushes. During that time I kept one eye open but with my other eye I could only see the pink-lidded outline of the world. I lay back and put my hands behind my head. The whole sea had gone quiet. The water had turned shy and mawkish; it didn’t want to play anymore. Life was flat, vapid. We could have been in my flat right now. She could have just gone to the kitchen to get a glass of water and I was lying in bed with sea salt air freshener.

After several minutes I sat up and looked down the beach. My girlfriend had stood up, taken a few steps away from the bushes. She looked over at me, a wide smile on her face: frank, unexpected.

________! ________!

What is it?

You have to see.

I got up and walked over. The bushes were slightly dried-up; wide, yellowish leaves. I had my suspicion it would be some lost thing, or some animal. And then I saw it; it was about the size of a large printer. The wide, flesh-coloured head emerged, the size of a baby’s head- wet, mawkish, blinking eyes, a grimy hooked beak which masticated the air. It was squat and fat, almost square in its dimensions; more pit bull terrier than bird. We had never seen anything like it. Its whole head and upper neck was covered in a gray down, with a receding bouffant effect near the back of its skull. It was either bare or balding; its mottled, sickly skin almost translucent in the sunlight. I could not tell if it was very young, or every old. Either way, it was hideous.

Isn’t it the funniest thing, my girlfriend chuckled. But don’t get too close.

I won’t.

Where’s your phone?

Over there.

Take a picture.

It was almost like the thing understood. It fixed me with one sad, crafty glass eye, and before I could move any further shot off into the undergrowth with more dexterity and speed than its stocky body seemed capable of. I took a step forward into the bushes, and watched it disappear.

It almost gave me a heart attack just now, when it appeared behind me, my girlfriend said. It kept very still. I should have taken a photo then, but my camera is in your bag.

Maybe there are loads of them around. Some sort of inbred creature. Maybe they are dangerous. Dog birds.


She didn’t seem pleased with that explanation, but she no longer seemed particularly bothered either. I would like to say that it was late in the afternoon, and that we packed our things and headed for dinner, or for beers, but it was only about 1:30 in the afternoon. We both felt a little obliged to stay on the beach. It still felt strange that it was so empty. It was like everyone else around had been funnelled out and we were a sediment of four legs and four arms and two heads, miscellaneous sundries, two more days of this ahead of us; dead days ahead.