The Story of Absence. ~ Shirley Maya Tan

Via Shirley Maya Tan
on Jan 16, 2014
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Realization came, late and still un-welcomed.

I am not present.

Not in my newly renovated apartment, not eating dinner in my parents’ house, not checking my daughter’s homework and finding out how she is coping in her new school. Not involved with my dad’s companies. Not catching up with my close friends in Bangsar. Not madly rushing from the airport to another meeting.

I could walk the streets day and night, country to country, looking for some clues in every corner, in every person, and in every set of open arms. I could knock on every single door, apologetic and inquisitive, and I still wouldn’t find any remnant of a real answer.

I am simply not here.

Here is where I have been avoiding all my life.

I could be found everywhere else but here, because here is where everything will come to light. So, I yearned to be away from everyone and everything that would reflect the starkness of the truth.

I am still stuck in that place, somewhere between awakening and nostalgia, crying my goodbyes, on the balcony of revelations, unable or unwilling to let go of the railings, to see what lies ahead and what had come to pass.

My absence hangs over me like a dreaded gloom. Like the certainty that I lost when I decided to escape. I walk around looking for a ghost. Not anyone’s, but mine. The ghost of a person I used to be before it all started. Or during.

Dozens of people I have made myself into, with unrestrained disguises, creative excuses, innovative facades, utmost indifference. All of them are still evident, here, in Bangsar, in London, and in all the places which I have ever went to.

And the latest version of me, created by my abject absence, is trying to find all of them, the different episodes of the same story, and put them back together.

I’ve met some of them in the last two months.

I found March 1992, sitting in London’s Harvard Court, all dizzy and drenched with euphoria.

She had just turned 21 and lost her veiled innocence to some American bloke. She thought that her feminine shackles have been broken at long last and she could taste freedom in whatever size or colour. No longer would her worth as a woman be measured by what laid between her legs. Or so she thought.

April 1996 was standing outside my old house in Oklahoma, checking out her new toys.

She had just opened her dance club in the city and made some money. So, she bought herself things she did not need but wanted to keep at hand just so they could assert her status in life. She winked at me and showed off her Porsche 968 Convertible, her Harley Davidson Fat Boy and Range Rover. At the corner of her garage was a Jet Ski.

Men of all ages and colours were fawning over August 1996.

Even women were throwing themselves at her. For the lack of a better word, she was spoilt for choice. There was this constant self-indulgent grin on her face. She was the epitome of cool party gal.

January 1998 was quite perplexed. She saw death and life in that one month. Her grandfather had passed away quite suddenly, but a boy had knelt down on one knee in the airport, and proposed to her. While her eyes mourned, her heart leapt for joy.

April 1998 was crying frantically, constantly pressing the redial button.

Her fiance haven’t spoken with her for two days. From what I understood, both of them had a really big fight. She couldn’t understand what was taking him so long to come back from Vancouver, and entertained the thought that perhaps he might have had second thoughts.

I saw July 1999 crouching in a corner.

She whispered, “It’s been four months into our marriage, and I am still learning. Sometimes, I feel quite helpless. I don’t know what goes on in his head sometimes. At nights, we sit in bed, he is reading and I am writing. It seems that we just go about our business quietly, careful not to disturb one another. And I fear that the silence does not equate to any sort of peace”.

I bumped into a frazzled December 1999.

“I miss him,” she said, and then, with a sheepish smile, she confessed: “We are expecting our first child next March.”

May 2000 was prancing up and down with anxiety.

She said that the baby has helped in keeping her really busy. She said that her husband comes home very late from work these days. And that he has to eat dinner alone, and that the both of you hardly talk and share anymore. Physical intimacy has evolved into playing with the baby together, and she putting plasters on his back.

I came across September 2000 lying in bed, all clenched up.

She was mumbling, “I am a terrible mother and wife. No one believes me, but I know, deep down inside, I know the truth. If I were so good, our lives wouldn’t be like this. This is a nightmare!”

I was not surprised to bump into February 2002 standing almost steel-like in front of the Judge at the Divorce Courts. She saw me from the corner of her eyes. I was certain she did see me, but she did not flinch or move a muscle. Her eyes were fixed at the Judge and answered, “Yes.”

October 2003 was a sight of wreckage. She didn’t want to talk at all. She had just buried her beloved grandmother and had not come out of her room for five days.

I suggested a reunion, a meeting to discuss our situation. They all dismissed it as a bad idea, and have avoided me ever since.

I suspect that, each in their own way, they blame me for what has happened. For not holding on to the good times, for letting things get this bad, for not believing in love enough, or believing in it too much. They don’t want to be reunited, because we don’t belong in the same place.

We all exist in different times, different dimensions. We no longer have anything in common with one another.

They consider me a completely alien being. If they are the chapters of our story, I am the epilogue. I am the conclusion, one that they wouldn’t have come to understand themselves. To each of them, I am an abstract term. Impossible to define. So, it’s true what they say about the past being a foreign country. Indeed, we do things so differently there.

Hence, my absence is much stronger than my presence.

There were times when I used to sleep next to a warm body, and I had never felt more alone. But the times when I began sleeping on my own, I started to feel the space and freedom I have been yearning for.

In the strangest way, my absence is with me all the time. It has ways of making itself known—just like the jingling of keys to my new home, the turn of the door knob to an empty place when my daughter goes off to stay with her father, the smell of the hotel room in each country during my business travels, the scent of innocence that once was—they all announced the presence of my absence.

At night, I sleep on the right side of the bed. Though I’ve tried my hardest to move towards the middle, to make most of the unexpected space, I still lie on my allocated side, careful not to disturb my absence, sound asleep next to me.

And in the daytime, I walk around the streets and talk to myself. Together, we try to figure it out. So far, we haven’t been successful. The issues we concern ourselves with, are painful ones.

Could this be, as my absence said, our destiny? And in that case, can destiny be bad for you? Could one choose happiness over fate, or would that be considered blasphemy?

My absence follows me down paths none of us have been before. Every now and then, it smiles a smile that implies superiority that seems to confirm the pointlessness of these walks and talks. Sometimes, when everything goes quiet for a while, I can hear it talking to me.

“What are you doing?” It asks. “Why are you pretending to be looking for answers, when we both know who you are really trying to find?”

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Editor: Cat Beekmans

Photo: Author’s own.



About Shirley Maya Tan

Shirley Maya Tan is a blogger and single mother living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her gorgeous daughter keeps her on her toes, good poetry makes her swoon and delectable desserts are her passion. Shirley’s life revolves around writing, publishing and digital media. She writes about motherhood, Malaysian culture, traveling, sexuality, spirituality and her brand of fearless living. Shirley also writes short fiction and erotic poetry.


23 Responses to “The Story of Absence. ~ Shirley Maya Tan”

  1. GK Adams says:

    As usual, this is beautifully written, Shirley. It's nice to have some insight into some of the struggles you are working through. I think the difficult situations we are presented with only make us better when we come through the other side of the door. It's not fun to walk through the darkness, but we have to keep in mind that the sun will be shining as it awaits our arrival. Stay strong and have faith. You are a beautiful woman with an even more beautiful soul.

  2. shirleymaya says:

    Wow, thank you for your very kind and supportive words. I think many women lose their sense of identity through a marriage or divorce. I know I went through a bad one. I used to call it, The Remains of Shirley. I imagine walking around with it, tied around my neck, trying to put the pieces back together. And when I did, I found many parts missing. Because I had adopted a lot of what was invested in the marriage and shared with my ex-husband. In my own way, I had to find the different parts of me – or rather versions of me, and evolve into a more complete and real me. I am very glad that I went through that process, although at that time, I hated every second of it. Who knows – if I hadn't, I might still be walking ghost – absent from life and the world around me. Thanks again for your comments, Gina.

  3. Jamie Khoo says:

    Shirley! This is beautiful in all its rawness and nakedness. Thank you for opening your heart so wide open for us to see so many of these most painful moments. I think there is a part in all of us which knows this absence and understands how difficult it is to bring the 'gaps' together to close them – and it is healing for us to see that someone else understands what it means to break apart and then learn to put ourselves back together again. Thank you and I hope you know how healing your writing of something like this can be. Big love (and chocolate desserts, for although that doesn't mend everything, it certainly helps in the journey) xxxxx

  4. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you for your encouraging words, Jamie. Sometimes I do really feel that the most painful way is the best way to heal because it deals with the heart of the issue and faces it head-on. It will hurt a great deal, like tearing your insides out. However, we will sever the root of our unhappiness, pain and suffering. These days, I let Karma do the rest while I go about living my life to the fullest. Being happy is a state of mind 🙂 Thank you again. Hugs x

  5. Mae Acmali says:

    Hi Shirley! This is a wonderful article, thank you for sharing your experiences with us – good or bad – I can absolutely say that one can learn a lot just by reading this and that is to stand again, fearlessly, and yes, let Karma do the rest 🙂 Enjoy every moment of being truly happy!

  6. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you, Mae, for your very kind comments. I agree on letting Karma do the rest – good or bad, we receive what we dish out. I am truly enjoying the art of fearless living, and loving the learning that comes with it. Wishing you all the very best.

  7. Susan says:

    Thank you, Shirley, for the light of knowing I am not the only one. I am not sure I have a memory of ever being in the present. I just turned 60. I hope I'm not too late to find it and live in it. If I am, I will cherish absence for being there. Shirley, your words have moved me tremendously.

  8. Lorraine says:

    Shirley, I am cowed and humbled by your writing. Thank you so much! Some of us are there every day, or some parts of every day, and it helps to have you holding up the mirror for me. I want to print out your piece so I can hold it against my chest and breathe. Much love to you,

  9. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you so kindly for sharing, Susan. I live in HOPE and I believe it is never too late. You've got the right positive attitude – you'll cherish the absence for being there. I had to use very "baby steps" to guide me back – even something as trivial as finding out what is my favourite kind of breakfast. I recall ordering 5 breakfasts at one morning at a local deli in Malaysia, and tried each one of them (without finishing, of course) – only to discover that I really love Eggs Benedict! Then, little by little, the pieces of me started to form back into the present until I was whole again. Wishing you the very best, Susan and never stop discovering. The journey itself is our greatest reward 🙂

  10. Margaret Lee says:

    Hi Shirley, love your article and thank you for sharing your journey with us …. I have gone through the same steps and paths and understood totally what you meant by the absence of oneself.

    May be I can say it boldly now after 14 years from my own divorce, and with a little bit of wisdom and realization… ….I want to see the whole divorce process as a lesson learnt in a positive way, Whoever comes in and walk out of our lives has served his purpose, he has come to add in the few strokes he needed to on our canvas, and those strokes will always make up the final grand piece which will always remind us of the pain and pleasure coexisting in equilibrium. XOXOXO

  11. shirleymaya says:

    Oh wow, Lorraine…I am very touched by your words. Honestly, it does help to look at the mirror and remind ourselves to be present. I'll gladly hold up the mirror for you. Wishing you much joy, love and peace 🙂

  12. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you for sharing, Margaret. You are right, we are the sum of all our past – good or bad. And different individuals do add to our final masterpiece. What a lovely way to look at life. Much love x

  13. Maria Y says:

    Thank you for sharing yourself (and your gifts of words) with those that stumble upon your writing (and stumble along beside you in spirit). Beautiful, beautiful words!

  14. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you so kindly, Maria. I am truly humbled and deeply grateful for all the words of support 🙂

  15. Lauren says:

    Shirley, your words… Your depiction of you.. It’s amazing, really. I read it and found myself in your words. I also found myself last year after what felt like a long search, and many faces of me…

    Thank you. This was beautifully written.

  16. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you, Lauren. It is heart-warming to know that we are not the only ones who go through this. Sometimes, it might even be a necessary journey we undertake to find ourselves. Thank you again 🙂

  17. shirleymaya says:

    Samantha, thank you so much for writing. I can assure you there is always HOPE. It is always darkest before it the light breaks. Believe in yourself and you will bring yourself home. Wishing you all the very best 🙂

  18. MarinaSofia says:

    Very honest, emotional yet self-controlled, this is a much wiser woman coming to terms with that palpable absence. Good luck on your journeys – this touched me deeply.

  19. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Marina. Wishing you all the very best on yours too. May the rest of our lives be the best of our lives 🙂

  20. The Hook says:

    You should be very proud of yourself, my friend.
    Your voice is enlightening, entertaining and a joy to behold.
    Well done!

  21. shirleymaya says:

    Thank you so kindly, Hook. Means a great deal coming from you 🙂

  22. Whispering Insights [email protected] says:

    Ah, this is so "real", Shirley, as I like it. Like the Velveteen rabbit with the dangling eye, all worn and scruffy from being touched with love, hugged by life…you are such a real and powerful soul, Shirley! Just this past week, sick in bed with a nasty cold, feeling sorry for moi…I did a quick snapshot of me with my ex husband or a former lover and quickly felt that emptiness…alone, absent of "me" feeling. your article comes in a timely manner my dear. I am still searching but moving forward always. Thank you for sharing what so many need to read. Hugs, Oliana

  23. shirleymaya says:

    Hi Oliana, thank you for your very kind comments. I am sorry to learn that you are not well. Hope you are much better now. I am sorry that my reply has been so delayed. I do not get notifications when people comment on this article. In any case, I was reviewing my old published works when I stumble upon your comments. It may be lonely on some nights and days. But, I rather be lonely than be stuck in an unhappy marriage/relationship. Take good care, my dear. Hugs x