4 Mar 2020 | Emily Clements
The Lotus Eaters by Emily Clements is a sharply written memoir about self-redemption and dissects the patterns of blame and shame women can form around their bodies and relationships. The Lotus Eaters puts into words experiences that feel painfully familiar but rarely talked about.
With my toes gripping the steps, I peered down into seething flesh and leather. I’d never been confronted by a sea of men like this. Most had scratched helmets strapped over their heads, teeth browned in their gums. Their voices clanged in my ears, spruiking a ride. I hesitated. Their bodies broached no gap; nowhere I could fit myself through untouched. I shrank back against the bus door but someone was pushing me forward. The driver sat and stared out the front window, his face blank. The world was bathed in orange. With a deep breath, I wriggled my feet back into my shoes and stepped outside.
Fingers pinched at the meat of my arms, pulling at my shoulders. The men dragged my body back and forth, shoving their hands across my chest. Lingering. With their palms heavy on my flesh I said, ‘Sorry.’ With my fat pinched between their fingers I said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘Sorry, I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry,’ the words spewed up from that vacuum at my core where my spine should have been. A lesson taught in high school: what bends cannot break. Beyond the shifting wall of male bodies, I spotted a bright-yellow taxi.
The driver locked my bags in his trunk and I slipped into the back seat. Disembodied arms lay lank through the open window. One man, cheeks flushed, pointed to the driver, then gestured to his mouth. Laughed. Knuckles pushed up white, I looked to the driver. He was busy fiddling with the meter. Finally, he glanced back at me, an afterthought, and asked, ‘Where are you going?’
I had no idea. My mind scrabbled back three months, the day I’d first wandered into the husky pre-dawn light of Việt Nam’s capital city, Hà Nội. My feet had traced the uneven circumference of a lake green as olives, past trees strung with lights and painted white. What was the lake called? The lake, the lake, the lake—
‘Hoàn Kiếm Lake!’
At the lake, motorbikes swirling around the taxi, I hauled my backpack out of the trunk. There was a fountain up ahead, shops filled with suitcases and grinning water puppets. With my memory glowing like a thread, I trod the same path I had three months earlier, when I’d made my way to meet Tegin and Zack. They’d left Australia two weeks after me, waiting for Zack to finish his exams. I’d landed in Sài Gòn, made my way by train from south to north. A man in my carriage had watched me as I pretended to sleep and in a hotel with thin wooden walls I listened to a couple fucking each other in French. I’d met Tegin and Zack at the Meracus hotel, nestled among shoe sellers and key cutters.
Suddenly, there was the Meracus on the right, both bigger and smaller than I remembered: granite façade, cream-collared bellboy beaming from atop a set of polished stairs. Seeing me pause, he pushed open the door – I started up the stairs, thinking already of the familiar. They asked me if I had a booking; I did not.
Beyond the Meracus, the two closest hotels were Hanoi Amanda and the Orchid. They faced each other, motorbikes streaming between them. I considered them both, exhaustion whirling in my body. The sign out front of the Orchid was a little more faded: I thought it might be cheaper. A man sitting by the sign leapt to his feet, hastily stubbing out his cigarette. He wore a dark-blue sweater and flashed his smile like a business card. His eyes were round and dark as litchi seeds.
‘Come inside, come inside,’ he said, opening the door and pulling me in.
The reception was long and narrow, tiled in glossy marble – or something made to look like marble. Wicker chairs and glass-topped tables were lined up on one side, empty except for a middle-aged American couple arguing over a plate of stringy vegetables. To the left of the glass doors was the reception desk – arranged across its surface like a still life were a bag of chopped pineapple, stack of brochures, small vase with large flowers and striped motorbike helmet.
The man, lean and muscled in his blue sweater, showed me the price chart. Expensive. I glanced at the door, somehow rooted to the spot. Hadn’t I agreed to something by coming in here? The man followed my eyes and told me he’d make me a deal.
‘Can I see the room?’ I asked, looking back, glad for the excuse not to have to leave.
‘Sure,’ he said with a grin and for the first time I saw something of the fox in his white teeth. Upstairs, at the very top floor, the room was tucked to the side of a hallway with a single thin window. The room itself had no natural light, washed yellow from a yellow bulb. There was a bed and a small bathroom and a bedside table. It was a cell but as of then it was mine.
The man’s teeth were the last thing I registered in his face as he bowed out of the room I hadn’t really wanted, that I couldn’t really afford. But it didn’t matter, because I’d pay anything for a man like that to smile at a girl like me.
Sex education is a box that our young male Year 8 teacher – who is too short to be a basketballer – can’t wait to tick. We take a multiple choice quiz on the reproductive system that includes:
How long is a period?
a) 1–3 days
b) 3–5 days
c) 5–7 days
I’d got my period for the first time in Year 7 Maths class. Each month my uterus churns out five days’ worth of menses. I put my hand up to answer ‘B’. The teacher gives a short, sharp shake of his head. He tells me I am wrong. Others call out ‘C’. I see some girls trading looks. The boys are laughing. The teacher raises his hand to shut us up and with no room for discussion, tells us the answer is ‘A’.
Someone tries to challenge him, asks, ‘Sir, how would you know?’
The teacher gets flustered, says something about how for his girlfriend, it’s always three days. This is the first the class has heard of a girlfriend – they whistle and cheer and ask if he is going to marry her. The quiz is forgotten.
Mine is five, theirs is three. I spend the rest of the year thinking there is something wrong with me.
We giggle and groan about it but we are all looking forward to the condom and the banana. This lesson has almost acquired the status of legend, passed down from those who came before us. I’m fourteen – have never seen a condom in real life before, never touched one. I am quiet when the others waggle their eyebrows or gag. I am curious, and determined. This is something I know nothing of, something that I haven’t come across in books. It is something I want explained to me. It fills me with anticipation, a quiet excitement. I feel that it is important.
Then I get sick. Just a cold, something that’s been going around. I bum around the house and watch movies. At school the next day, Tegin tells me it’s happened. At PD/H/PE – Personal Development/Health/Physical Education – yesterday, the teacher brandished the infamous banana and instructed students on how to roll a condom over it. Extolled the importance of safe sex, et cetera.
‘I missed it?’ I ask with disbelief.
Tegin shrugs. ‘It was gross. I got a cucumber. He made us all do one.’
The next time we have PD/H/PE, it’s a sport lesson. The teacher leads us over to the basketball courts and makes a show of spreading the unfit kids evenly between the teams, before letting us just sit in the shade and play cards. On our way back to the classroom, I muster up my courage and jog up to him. I ask about the condom lesson.
‘Oh, we did it last week.’ Box ticked.
‘I was away. I missed it.’ Maybe I say this laughingly. Maybe I don’t convey how, by having not rolled a condom over a banana, I feel I’ve missed a milestone.
Regardless, he glances over at me for the first time. At this age, I always wear my hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. My glasses are the same ones I’ve been wearing for years and are too small for my face, pushing up little folds of skin on either side of my eyes. The arms leave green rust marks on my temples. I feel his eyes flick down, over my squashed-in chest and the awkward bulges around the top of my skirt.
Then he laughs. ‘Don’t worry. You’re not going to be needing one of those for a while.’
I laugh back, to hide my hurt. I fall to the end of the line, ashamed for having even asked. Of course I didn’t need that lesson. What a presumption. I’ve never been kissed. As far as I know, no-one has ever had a crush on me. All around me are thin-limbed, floaty-haired golden girls. Whenever I look at myself in the mirror I cringe. Maybe I would never need a condom.
It would be barely a year later, in fact, that I would.
This is an extract from The Lotus Eaters by Emily Clements
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