#2047| Soft wonder

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Cleanness by Garth Greenwell, copy from Definitely Books

Just a minute or two ago I turned the last page on Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, the title story, not the collection; the title story which is located somewhere in the middle of the book, and gasped. As I was reading I remember holding my breath, mouthing the words, tracing them over with my tongue and pen, just stunned, astonished at how beautifully woven his words were, how precise, soft, clear. Stunned, I said it before, but must say again, I finished, and immediately exhaled, all the wind that had been stored up in me rushing out at once, whistling between my teeth. When the air was all gone I inhaled again and said, to an empty room, oh.

I could not bring myself to continue to the next story, I had some other things that needed to be done, a shelf to be built, a few submissions to review for the Journal’s Spring Contest, a housemate to talk to, exchange words with, something we previously took for granted but recently formalized due to extenuating circumstances, other things, as I said, that needed to be done, but I could not do them. It seemed a small violence to allow new words or actions to enter, to dissolve the temporary bubble that the story had spun. I was still in the space of Cleanness, which I had only just joked about a day before (to myself, only, but still) as being thematically appropriate for our times.

In the space of the last week my life has allowed tremors to take hold, what’s the point of using euphemistic language, here is what it is: i have drained my life savings and put my life on pause to be here in new york city, to attend my dream school, pursue my dream tribe, and crisis has wrapped the city up in its little finger. Everything is over and we are all staying home. Or perhaps it is not over but it feels like it is: how can it not, when half the city and my house is fleeing, if they can afford it, the other half is aggressively sanitizing, campus is locked down, i am communing only with paper and through the screen, Am I in quarantine, no, but i might as well be. Quarantine! I am not quarantined so much by a sickness i do not have but by a bittersweetness, a lack of foresight into even the week after, a fear of the turbulent finances that this whole situation has thrown us into. It’s too bad, my friend said, about your school, i’m sure youre disappointed, and i thought to myself, disappointment, what is disappointment, some people can afford it, not I.

I want, more than anything, i think, but i have thought wrong before, so maybe this time too, who knows, but I want to be proven wrong, to look back in a month and think: aha! an overreaction, your melodramatic side resurfacing, as usual. But I kept calm before and look where that got me. For the last week i have had to force myself to slow, enact and enforce a new metronome to move through my day. I made a checklist – every day i would try to do at least four things from a category of five, here: write, read, exercise, errands, assignments. If i am to be stuck at home the least i can do is be productive, but the truth is you really only value isolation when you have chosen it, made time for it, not when it has been thrust upon you. I suppose that is true of most things. Anyway, Cleanness had been on my list for a long, long time, and i slipped it in my bag out of habit, then took it out, because what for, i am not going anywhere, i dont need a bag.

And it was good, very good, and i thought, oh, this quarantine is not so bad, im making progress on a variety of things i suppose, and then i got to the middle of the book, to the center of Cleanness, and stopped short.

I sometimes wonder if I make a bad book reviewer, etc, because i find it so hard to talk about the beautiful, I don’t want to break it apart and analyse it, i want to hold it in my hands and just make the sound the protagonist’s lover makes in Cleanness the story, the unnameable sound of homecoming and pleasure. I will have to move on, at some point, i know, and quite soon too, if I don’t want to roast in regret tonight at having let hours slip by unproductive, I will have to do the things: build the shelf, reply emails, edit work. But it is in this moment now, just after the reading, that I sit at present, with it in my hands, turning it over, trying to hold on to it, draw the moment out. It is in this moment that i tap these words out, from my end of an isolation which has so easily slipped into a more serene solitude, on my screen, to yours.

x
Jem

#2046 | Yet another note on pain

Since my last update I have spent more money than I am comfortable with (and yet, I hear, not enough!) on:

1. A laptop stand (bought one, returned it, bought another)
2. An external keyboard (bought one, and after being informed online that my purchase was UNERGONOMIC, returned it, bought another)
3. Wrist and mouse rest (thankfully, I brought a mouse with me from Singapore)

And today: 4. A proper office chair.

This is upsetting indeed. I have tried diligently to avoid purchasing an office chair because A) I like my current chair a lot but it’s too short B) I dont want to spend more money because even breathing air in New York City is bloody expensive, and C) no matter how you spin it, office chairs are damned ugly.

But it has come to this. I spend at least 5-6 hours a day at my desk, typing, or editing. My wrist has protested in the form of carpal tunnel. My back moans at me every day. This is unreasonable for a woman of only twenty seven – one who eats veggies, fruits, and worked out 4-5 times a week before my hand required me to pause all physically strenuous activity! There’s no getting around it: I feel so betrayed by my body. I feel as if I have treated it with respect and all it wants from me is money and more money. Is this what having kids is like? Ugh.

Anyway, in a bid to avoid spending money, I’d traded my beautiful white chair for my housemate’s office chair the last two weeks. There’s no denying that the ability to adjust the height of the chair has improved my life greatly. But my back still creaks and I don’t like how the chair leans back. Plus, being a small Chinese girl, my feet can’t touch the floor in this chair that has too wide a seat. Lastly, and perhaps most pertinently, this is not my chair. It’s my housemate’s, and there is a lease to his generosity. It will have to be returned at some point. It was becoming increasingly clear that I would have to spend some dollahs.

Thus began a couple of weeks of obsessively pouring over Amazon and Wayfair reviews, options, prices. Everything was expensive, and even then, all chairs came with both very good and very bad reviews. Perhaps I am not as much of an optimist as I previously thought: I became fixated on the bad. If I were to spend money to remain in pain perhaps it would be better not to spend the money at all? But at the back of my mind I knew these were just excuses: I needed a chair.

I finally went to a Staples today after church. I was enticed by the big red sign, CHAIR SAVINGS EVENT! It reminded me of the way sales in Korea are referred to as Events. Events, in my head: a thing to be celebrated. Much like the erasure of my lower back pain. A woman in her mid twenties should not be in this much lower back pain. I pushed the doors open and went in.

I spent about half an hour sitting in various chairs, rolling around, leaning back, trying to touch the floor. I sat in mesh chairs, leather chairs, gaming chairs, cushy chairs. I realised that comfortable, soft chairs encouraged in me a mood of laziness. That gaming chairs were too ugly for me to bear. I wish I were an artist so apart from the material world but the truth is, I am not. I enjoy pretty things and will not be shamed for it! I concluded that leather chairs seem made primarily for wide-bottomed men, so much so that if I wanted to sit straight, my back would not touch the chair, in which case, what for? That left mesh, which I did not love, but seemed the most practical for the purposes of cleaning. And besides, they looked the most ventilated, which I thought of in terms of the eventual arrival of summer, a mark of my ability to plan ahead.

There was this one chair I had been avoiding, partially because other people were trying it most of the time, partially because it looked plain and unenticing, mostly because it cost two hundred dollars.

But I had tried everything else in the store and everything felt like a compromise. I walked over, sat down, and fell in love.

It was the correct height, the correct width. My back felt like it was being gently supported by a pair of hands. The seat was not so deep that I would have to fidget to get my back against the chair while remaining upright. The armrests were movable, and removable. In that moment looks no longer mattered to me, it was no longer plain, nor boring, it was the proverbial one. My back was singing. It was two hundred dollars.

A girlfriend called me then, I explained my situation, all the while nestling deeper against the chair. She said: two hundred dollars for a peace of mind? Jemimah, there are some things you save money on, and some you don’t.

I went to the counter and placed my order. As if by divine intervention, the sales assistant looked it over and pronounced that it was on sale and would come up to only $130. Only! I thought about how my initial budget for a new chair was fifty dollars and then quickly brushed that thought away. I hemmed and hawwed for another ten minutes over whether I wanted Chair Insurance which is apparently very much a thing. I got the insurance.

I am now back at home, sitting in my housemate’s chair, writing this. My new chair will arrive on Tuesday, at which point I will have to build it. Till then, my meals will have to consist whatever is already in my fridge, or on sale at the grocery store. My chair has usurped more than two weeks worth of grocery money, which is causing me a different type of acute pain. But I cannot bring myself to be unhappy. I cannot help but think, though unrealistically, that from this moment everything will change. Ah – so this is what it is. One must advance with a heady mix of optimism, naivete, and deliberately placed limitations on her field of vision. Such are the ingredients necessary to proceeding as a functioning member of a world straddled between the practical and absurd.

x
Jem

#2045| To world enough, and time

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Illustration: Shane Lim for Her World
A version of this piece was published in Her World’s 2020 February issue for their Modern Love column. Many thanks to Hayley and team for housing it – you can get the issue in stores now. x

Reader,

I write to you from across the seas. Between us there is everything: the North Atlantic Ocean, the Philippine Sea, the Laccadive, the Arabian.. my dreams, and my ambition.

From young this has defined me: pools and pools of ambition, that I have alternatively swam and struggled in. I was terrified of waking up one day to find that I had wasted my life: and so I threw myself into work, trying to write my way into a life I found meaningful. I was raised in the age of change, where Hollywood romances had started to peter off into slogans of female independence, critical essays questioning the status quo of a life lived prioritizing the couple over the individual. As a result, I saw a relationship as a likely death sentence to the pursuit of individual dreams, a lifetime of half-compromises. Where would I find a partner who would be okay with all the things that I wanted? And yet, six years ago when I met a boy on the eastbound train from NTU, I hoped.

The limit of Shane’s okay has stretched beyond the limits of my expectations. He has been by my side as I researched writing programs, been the first reader and editor for any story I write, the organizing principle to the chaos of my mind. He does this while maintaining a life, a career, an artistic practice that is separate from mine, from our relationship. In the past six years, my work as a travel host took me all over the world in short bursts, rehearsals in being apart, and yet he never once complained as I tried to figure out where my life was going. He was, and has been, more supportive than I could’ve ever dreamed. Still, when I called him one evening last year with news of my acceptance to Columbia, I was afraid. Surely this is it, I thought, surely now is when he goes, alright, I just want a girlfriend who is present, is that so much to ask?

Instead, he asked me to marry him. Two months before I flew, what I thought was a birthday celebration for a girlfriend* turned out to be an elaborate proposal, a six act theatrical experience based on a play he wrote. And then it dawned on me: this two-year long-distance relationship I imposed upon us both with my individual ambition was not something he secretly resented, nor something he was simply tolerating. It is something he is actively, wholeheartedly committing to.

And so we are engaged, promised to each other. But while a promise suggests future fulfillment, Shane has shown me that a relationship can have space in the present for both parties to grow into their own person, chasing their dreams while always having a home to return to in the other. This should be obvious but it is not always. This distance between us: it is also a promise towards reunion. And although we are physically apart, we know that our endgame is in each other.

Bio

Jemimah Wei is a writer based in New York City, pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. Her partner, Shane Lim, depending on who you ask, is either a copywriter, a poet, an illustrator, a best friend to many, an incredibly supportive fiancé to one, or all of the above.

*the same girlfriend from my essay: To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, published in Her World’s December 2018 issue.

#2044| saltwater

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Saltwater / Quarterly Literary Review Singapore

Don’t worry, she wanted to tell him, I just got excited. I won’t accidentally ascend again. I am in control. But all she could do was blow bubbles at him through her regulator.

I have a new(ish) story in QLRS about the different ways one can be sick at sea. Question: if you wrote a story a long time ago, but it just got accepted for publication, do you think of it as a new story out or an old story being put to rest?

I am quite sleep deprived and that is the question operating at the forefront of my mind, presently.

x
Jem

#2043| Pain, pain, and more pain!

For all its optimism 2020 has brought with it carpal tunnel and great lower back pain. I have since been informed that this is my lot, as a writer. I have seen my future and the forecast is ergonomic. I suppose that’s where the next two weeks of lunch money will be going.

x
Jem