Paper Thin (short story excerpt)

To read this story, you will need a square piece of paper at least the size of your hand. The paper can be coloured, thick, thin, lined, graphed, recycled, scrap, whatever you want. Use a piece from the phone book, they’re useless now anyway. Take your time to make it a nice square piece, clean and crisp. These words will wait. They’re good like that, there’s no need to pause or rewind, they’re always right where you left them. Ok, go, get up and get a piece now.

Step 1: Fold the paper in half (not diagonally in half) and then unfold the paper flat again.

***

When Colin and I appeared on the street in front of our hotel, Fajr had ended and the devout were finding their way through town, back to their homes or places of business. Jerantut’s cement-block buildings were stained from the humidity of the jungle that surrounded it, dripping green and black fungus, peeling the paint the residents hoped would cover it up. Without efforts to keep nature at bay, the town would be swallowed by the jungle again in less than a generation. The town smelled sweet with bird droppings and the rainbow of perfect flowers that grew out of it.

The heat was forever on our backs, under our feet, producing sweat in any joint that remained closed for more than a few seconds. Our shuttle to the water taxi landing was leaving in less than an hour so we hurried to the market to buy provisions for our week-long stay in the Pahang region’s Taman Negara, Malaysia’s first and largest National Park.

The market was buzzing with locals. It was off-season, so there were few tourists. A man with a giant growth on his face sold us fruit. He spoke no English and watched us with one eye, the other covered by a thick flap of skin that grew from the top of his forehead and covered the whole right side of his face. We loaded thin, pink plastic bags with fruit and flatbreads, nut-spreads, veggies and curry mixes. We returned to the hotel and sat on the curb out front. Juice from the papaya and mango ran down our arms as we cut up a fruit salad into our mouths. The bananas were only slightly bigger than my fingers, but were the sweetest I’d ever had.

There were already people in the minivan when it pulled up to the curb, a sleeping German couple and a jolly Japanese man looking eager and excited.

***

“I’m going to be a paediatrician,” she said.

“Cool, so you like kids, then?” I said.

“Sort of. I mean, not for me. I’m more of that cool aunt, you know?”

“Ah, yes, the cool aunt.”

She was in her second year of med school. Five more years, at least, until they stuck a child in her arms without supervision or fear of lawsuit. I thought about the things that can happen in five years. I tried to remember what I told myself I was ‘going to be’ five years ago. Nothing came to me. I tried to think of what I was ‘going to be’ in five years. It wasn’t very fruitful either, so I began mixing her another drink.

“So you have brothers or sisters?” I said.

“No, I’m the only one.”

“That’ll make being the cool aunt a little tricky.”

She laughed a little. “Yeah, I know lots of great couples, though. Some of them are already pumping kids out.”

“But not you.”

“Nah. I just don’t think I’m willing to give up my freedom, y’know?”

“I know.”

“I guess if I met the right guy.”

Her biological clock had definitely not started ticking yet. I saw her waging a war with her own body five years down the road. I could see her in her sterile office, dreaming of making useful crafts or learning to cook healthy organic food while she injected screaming infants with needles or examined pale children’s diarrhoea. Stoic with “going to be”. What choice would she have with deadbeats like me filling the gene pool?

“What do you do?” she said.

“Me? Well, I do many things.”

It was four in the morning. Josh came into the room with an athletic cup on over his pants and an unstuffed bra strapped over his t-shirt. He flicked his pink boa over his shoulder and adjusted the tiara on his head. Standard bachelor party attire for the groom-to-be. Tyler came running in after. He grabbed a wooden spoon from the vase of kitchen utensils and whacked Josh hard on the cup. Josh cringed, “That still fuckin’ hurts with the cup on, you know.”

He tried to wrestle the spoon away from Tyler as I tweaked his nipples hard through the bra. She took the lime I’d just finished cutting and threw it in the drink I had mixed. Staying as far from the wrestling match as possible, she wandered down the hall to find her friends. I wish I could remember her name.

We’d found a windowless room in the basement of Tyler’s house. Sunlight began streaming in through under the door. I could see the outline of her naked body, turned away from me. Her skin was soft and dark in the semi-darkness, but I didn’t touch it. I didn’t want to wake her. I found my pants, my phone, and checked the time. It was time.

I found a Visa receipt in my pocket from the last bar we had gone to. Black rum, beer, other drinks I don’t remember buying or drinking. She rolled towards me, her small breasts pressed between her folded arms. Her breathing was heavy, but silent, black alcohol sleep.

I folded the bottom corner of the receipt to its opposite side to make a triangle with the bottom of the paper. I tore off the rest of the receipt bit by bit, careful not to wake her, and unfolded the triangle again. A perfect square with a rough-ridged edge at the top, nothing but the date and the time of the transaction printed in fading black ink.

***

Step 2: Fold the paper in half the other way (not diagonally). Unfold it again. If the paper was red and the fold lines white, your paper would look like the Red Cross symbol.

***

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