Hungry Ghosts

by: Sharlene Teo

2006. Hungry Ghost Festival. This is the year I felt my brain was a single chicken stock cube, and could accept nothing further. I spent many hours in bed, indulgently paralyzed—my ankles quite unkempt, wrinkling my forehead. No more about me. The world yawned and widened. All across the neighborhood, orange bowls and domestic vegetables clattered out in public. Whole meals left out by the side of the street. Sponge cake and gravel, congealed rice and pigeon grit, road-ridden gifts for stray ghosts. I thought of Pac Man phantoms; pleasantly harmless, nothing more or less than jagged blankets roving the street corners. The air choked with joss-stick smoke, digestible superstition. My eleven-year-old brother told me that he had seen a ghost on the long walk home. It was a woman, he reported, with a greenish face. How did you know it was a ghost, I asked. She just looked so sad, he said.

We sit perpendicular to each other. It is a Sunday. You are not a Sunday kind of girl. You get the blues on Sundays, and forget how to smile. We are in the beer garden of an overpriced pub, because of the nice weather. I hold on to a sweating glass of beer and wish I found it more pleasant to drink, that I would hurry up. Right now you are looking tired, staring out at the world. An annoying-looking couple enters the establishment. 40% of why they are annoying is because they look richer than us, with their fine-knit neutral coverings and stupid clean hair. Fragrant and unmarked: like they are prone to feeling less troubled. I want to declare that they are annoying but would rather not come off as so relentlessly, tiresomely sardonic. Maybe we are an annoying-looking couple. In my mind, fortified, I am making you laugh so hard that you are crying, as if a giant onion has halved and filled your vision.

My ex-boyfriend spent the entire time we were in Los Angeles lamenting about how he hated California and never wanted to run into fame whores or tanned people. Instead we sat around our motel room until long past noon without touching each other, and I clipped my toenails into a plastic bag from a petrol station. I asked him why he picked Los Angeles of all the cities in the world if he didn’t want to partake in any Hollywood sightseeing shenanigans. He told me to Assume is to make an ASS out of U and ME and that he thought Los Angeles would be full of dusty old museums with sacred carpets and Botticelli paintings, churches with hallowed ceilings of cracked tempera and ancient effigies, tiny cafés with bitter coffees and indecipherable menus. He thought we would pose for photographs in cobblestone squares and nuzzle ferociously on wide bridges over a docile river at dusk. I told him that sounded more like a European cliché than anybody’s idea of Los Angeles. He told me I was the one who was mistaken, and that after these five days were up he never wanted to see me again.

My name is Stanley and I am working on a novel, I tell the passably attractive girl at the party. She has mid-length hair and a blue leopard-printed top. From the corner of my eye, her face is fading. It bleeds out like watercolors. I could not pick her out from a police line-up, much less a lunchtime queue for limp sandwiches. She holds a near-empty plastic cup and tries her hardest to look like she finds me interesting. I want to tell her that I try my hardest as well; I’m trying all the time. What is the novel about, my line manager asks me the next day. We work together in a greeting card chain store called HUGS. It’s about a twenty-four year old male, working in a call center, I tell my line manager. Or I just made it up to impress her. He merely nods.

I wish I was better at the Internet. I sit here on my ancient PC with one shoe on, late and gormless, waiting for Google to tell me the name of the Vietnamese restaurant where we are having a class reunion. It’s been eleven years; half my classmates are too successful to turn up. The Internet tells me so. My screen is a silent hum of unanswered questions and garden paths of vague and almost pleasant loneliness: humdrum laundry cycles, days without.

My older aunt spent twenty years of her life wringing her hands, waiting to grow up. On her twentieth birthday, she put on a peach-colored dress, cinched at the waist, and ventured out into the inscrutable world. She still looked so young, my grandmother said, too young to know any better. Did she die? I asked. My mother slapped me for being morbid. Back in her peach-colored dress, my aunt had her nose buried in a guidebook for a different city to the one she found herself in. What is this, where is this landmark? she muttered, accidentally kicking away stray turtles and heroin needles with her patent pumps. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss the boat, everyone had warned her. So she kept on walking until she reached the harbor. Bone-dry for miles out. They were reclaiming land, dredging the seabed up until it reached her chin. There the city council would build sticky bright apartment buildings and convenience stores that sold cigarettes and milk. My aunt touched her own smooth forehead; she would not miss the boat.