A passage in my Chinese textbook said
that the love of a father is conditional:
he withholds love until you meet his expectations,
while a mother’s love cannot be stoppered
and flows like blood, split and spilt from vein.
These chopsticks are so long and thick,
they look like fingers. Maybe that’s why I hold them
too tightly, why everything I reach for slides right through
and settles like sand at the bottom of a body
of water. That’s me—mostly body, partly water
and all aching to be loved
the way I am, the way I cannot help myself.
Sometimes I think I am too eager to please.
Praise is empty, I am bottomless.
Every drop of love anyone has ever given me,
I carry in my arms,
but it all spills so quickly when I stumble.
And if I could stop seeing myself in every bowl
of soup, I might care less about how much
is floating in it:
these peppercorns, this thin film of oil
we skim off with our spoons,
how much I can eat before the guilt catches up,
how long I can speak before my throat closes.
Don’t we have a duty, towards things which disappear?
Shouldn’t we lao for them, porous ladles
at the ready, draining all in sight
to rescue a piece of meat,
a body with the water boiled out of it?
My father says he loves me, but I am not a person,
I am dirty dishwater and lies.
He is crisp collar, starched shirt, further away
every time I reach for him,
and I love him, I love him, I love him.
Numb jaw, loose tongue. I could say “I love you”
a thousand times, and each time more insincerely
than the last, until the shoe drops
and so does this pretense.
You do not know me the way you think you do.
You cannot love me like this:
My physics teacher telling me I did well this term
and sinking crabsticks into steamboat.
My love languages are mala, scraping meat off a frozen plate,
and men who are not my father showing me affection.
Look at me. Please, look at me.
To all the men I’ve loved before, I apologise
for turning you into surrogates,
handing you a weight heavier than Atlas’s sky
and expecting you to lift my heart with them.
I know the mala burns,
I drink it anyway. I am searching for a face
at the very bottom of my bowl,
someone who sees me and is still willing
to pour their heart out.
Turn the pot, my teacher says, so the soup boils evenly,
and I can see us in a park somewhere:
playing ball, or riding bikes, or whatever it is
fathers do with their children
when they know who their children are.
My father says he loves me, but I am not a child,
I am hope and pestilence trapped in a jar.
He is a Titan of a man who cannot see
that the child wriggling in his stomach
is made of stone; it is petrified.
Say you’re proud of me. That you know how hard
I’ve struggled to live up to who you think I am.
At the end of the night, I tell my teacher,
this man who is not my father and will never be
that I am in love with another woman,
and he smiles,
tells me I should eat more.
I would weep, but I am too busy collecting
this moment in a tiny bottle
to hang around my neck so I know it’s real.
S. E. Swea is a lesbian Chinese-Malaysian writer and poet presently based in George Town, Penang. Her greatest indulgences are steamboat dinners, Hozier, and pretending to know what her horoscope means.