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The Hermit

The Hermit

23 mins 193 23 mins 193

Swensen stared haughtily at the full-length mirror in her bedroom. She had showered, dabbed essential oil on her face and pulled on shorts and a loose gray tank but she remained in front of the mirror listening. She had heard the opening of a door and the bustle of someone invading her kitchen. Unwanted footsteps instead of the quiet that wrapped the corners and rooms of her double-storeyed home. There was a human being downstairs in the living room.


A wave of irritation rose. Her home had been invaded. Home was where Swensen drank too much iced coffee, laid unproductively on the sofa and walked about without a bra. She was built in the typical slim-frame of a Chinese girl and only wore a bra because she had too. Certainly not for the support. In recent years, she had gone on a low-carb diet and clothes hung on her like a mannequin.


Swensen hesitated at the door. Was she to put on a bra for the political correctness of having to come in contact with an unwanted person in her home? The inconvenience made her simmer. Her sister had given in to the unwarranted requests of a friend from New Zealand who wanted free lodging. But hadn’t she heard her sister complain about this girl? One of those girls who made it her lifelong mission to give in to her propensity for boys, boys, and more boys. Why did her sister say yes? Was ‘no’ so difficult to give? “Stupidity that knew no bounds,” Swensen had thought, rolling her eyes.


Swensen had been practicing the piano last night when the unwanted human and sister sashayed in. They had gone to their respective rooms, except that the piano was just outside the guest room. Swensen stopped playing almost at once. Practicing her chords was a familiarity you didn’t give anyone besides family. Practice was repetitive, noisy, ugly and private. Didn’t her sister even think of these things when bringing a person in? Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!


Swensen swung open her bedroom door and marched downstairs, determined to face the intruder squarely and hopefully quickly. She wanted her break and quiet time. She wanted to quickly get this out of the way. Down she landed, There she was, the unwanted human, seated at the head of Swensen’s dining table. Skin tanned, smile bright, built in the same frame as Swensen. An attractive female who overrated her regular-level intelligence, the kind that equated being outspoken as a cerebral gift to men.


 “Hi,” Swensen said. “Hiiiiiiiii,” came the overly loud greeting, so jarring in the sanctity of her home. The unwanted human’s eyes strained on hers, Swensen knew why. Her bra-less state, though not compelling was distracting. Swensen came closer, even if she felt a little exposed. “So, what’s going on in KL for you?” asked Swensen.

It felt rude not making conversation when Swensen just wanted to go to the kitchen and make a drink. “I have a conference,” replied the unwanted human being cheerily. “It’s about HR and the challenges we’re facing when companies seem to be getting smaller and people go off to seek entrepreneurship. Like you. Your sister told me.”


“I think people always do things just because they have to. Many things are obsolete today and not in the trying-to-be-cool sense. Are you in HR?” said Swensen.

“Uh huh,” came the upbeat reply. “I’ve jumped around a bit and am trying this out. I broke up with my last boyfriend and wanted a fresh new start”


And there it went. The conversation veered off to guys and the unwanted human became even more animated. Swensen listened with equal attentiveness and judgment as the unwanted human painted herself in light of high value and elusiveness that she clearly wasn’t. “OMG, my ride is here,” unwanted human announced as her phone chimed. “OMG, thank god,” thought Swensen. Ten minutes was a little less than her quota for small talk but Swensen had just awoken and needed caffeine.


Out walked the unwanted human and Swensen proceeded with great glee to the kitchen where she boiled water, opened her bare pantry and considered between tea or coffee. A small decision to make that gave her great satisfaction every day.


The water boiled and Swensen tore off her sachet of instant milk tea. The Aik Cheong brand was the best instant “Teh Tarik” she swore. Creamy and thick and so good with Neflix, but not so for belly fat. The trauma of intrusion was the excuse she gave for allowing herself sugar today. Besides she needed energy. She planned to spend the morning learning a piano piece from a YouTube tutorial. Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York was an intermediate piece with fat chords that jumped from one octave to the other. Swensen struggled with it but determination kept her going. Her plan was to record herself and put it up on Facebook. Who said social media was all bad?


Her Facebook game was an enterprise by itself, one that Swensen secretly considered more superior to the standard timelines of most girls who posted overblown edits of their pretty faces or proclamations of their exaggerated love for their boyfriends. Last night, as she played the early verses, she felt shivers to the rising of her chords. The fact that her amateur playing gave her goosebumps was hilarious. Swensen laughed out loud.

*******


Swensen pushed her cart among the grocery aisles. She bought the same things all the time even if she made the effort to hold bottled pickle and colourful bags of marshmallows. Nope, she always put them back. They would only stay in her pantry and rot. Swensen always went back to lotus root, potatoes, carrots, unhealthy artificial chicken stock, instant soups, and coffee. She loved buying fluffy dinner buns too. These groceries gave her plenty of appetite gratification and Swensen found herself stirring the pot when she should be bent over her laptop creating sterile proposals.


Cooking was unheard of in Swensen’s vocabulary until she started working from home. Her previous 9-5 life was all about going out to eat. Grocery shopping only happened when her mom came to visit. But once home became her office, the need to self-provide reared its head. And so she cooked if what she did could be called cooking. Boiling would be more accurate. Swensen’s concoctions were a little too Swensen-specific. Low carb, vegetarian, repetitive and always accompanied with unhealthy chili sauce. But Swensen loved it.


Should she take a picture of her uninteresting groceries and put it up as her Instagram story? She thought about it for a while. Swensen had only joined the shallow platform 2 months ago and while she deplored the Instagram culture, she envisioned her account being a sub-culture within the glossy walls of Instagram masses. Big decision, therefore. Should she join the legions of inane millennials in recording the nothings of their lives? Well, maybe she would. She planned to eat spicy noodles in the café downstairs later and she could edit her picture while waiting for her food to come. Decision made. Create an Instagram story.


Swensen found a nicer aisle with cereal and propped her grocery cart in alignment with its shelves. She saw plenty of mundane and aesthetically-unpleasing IG stories and had no intention of joining them. Most people just didn’t know what was interesting or good to look at. No wonder people paid designers a bomb, She arranged her groceries catalogue-style. The carrots were a nice pop of pretty even if they were her least favourite among her goodies. She stuck her pedicured toes under the grocery cart and snapped a picture. Took a few more and after checking her photos, nodded in satisfaction. If only taking her own self-portrait were that easy.


Her phone chimed in her hand. It was Will. “Hi Swensen,” he texted. “See you tomorrow at Birch at 8 pm.” She sighed a little. “See you tomorrow J,” she texted back. She wasn’t keen on the date, but it was good to say yes once in a while. Saying too many “no’s” felt rude. Going for one date felt like it evened out everything and made future “no’s” understood. She couldn’t offend the goodwill of the Universe too often, even if it was getting it wrong.


Not that Will wasn’t attractive. He was good looking and intelligent from a boyfriend-angle. Maybe Swensen just found him a bit neutered. She preferred a white collar man with a blue-collar manliness. Not that it was a criterion set in stone, but it triggered easier excitement. Anything else, and Swensen found herself having to get into a specific “I’m grateful, I’m open for life’s experiences” mindset. This was one of them.


She hadn’t even decided what to wear for tomorrow, an uncommon scenario for Swensen who religiously took weekly OOTDs for her Instagram and thought out outfits with deep intensity. She would probably wear her new yellow dress from Lazada, a flowy little thing with ribbon straps and an exposed back. But maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Will would get different ideas about where the night would lead, and Swensen wanted to end the night to end in 3 hours, where she would jump in her car and drive off. Nope. Some other dress.


After paying for her groceries, Swensen headed to her favourite café in the hypermarket. It was a corner joint that sold delicious teh ais and scrumptious carb-rich rice and spicy noodles. Swensen was on a low-carb day but cheating didn’t feel so wrong today. She had been eating beans and corn for the past 2.5 days and her taste buds were shouting for something edible. Also, she had been planking and running and the lines in her stomach were decent. She could afford a carb meal for lunch.

She nodded at the waitress who asked “The usual?” Perhaps she should go all the way. She went over to the enclosed trays by the buffet line and spied sinful fried bananas. They were burnt black and a definite culprit for cholesterol. Swensen snatched up 3 and into her mouth one went. Wow, this was heaven. The teh ais arrived shortly and Swensen was in the seventh heaven. She went on Instagram and crafted her story. “I’ve become so domesticated” was her caption. A smiling heart-shaped sticker accompanied the grocery cart. Swensen tagged her location and day and off the story went, contributing nothing to the world except to make her feel a little more millennial.

*******


When Swensen got home, she saw with utter irritation that her instant tea had been plundered. The green package which sat inside her pantry was now outside on the table. The smattering of light brown powder on the table indicated that someone made a drink in a hurry. It had to be the unwanted human. What else did she steal from this home? Swensen shook her head and tossed her instant tea back in the pantry. A giggle in the guest room indicated the unwanted human being was present. Swensen wiped the table and put the water to boil.


The door open and a joyous human emerged in the kitchen. “Oh hey Swen, I hope you don’t mind, but I took one of your teas.” She was dressed in a white singlet and denim shorts, her hair tousled in the annoying way of a girl who got it easy in life. The unwanted human was definitely attractive, but all Swensen saw was an irritating girl who lacked manners and led a life with nothing deeper than millennial trends.

“Mmmmm okay,” said Swensen frostily.

The unwanted human wasn’t prepared for Swensen’s hostility. “Oh, I’m sorry,…………I should have asked?”

Swensen shrugged her shoulders like a wise-ass and the air in the room tensed.


 I could buy it back?” Her singsong voice was so affected like she was living in a forgettable Netflix film.

“Okay,” replied Swensen flatly.

The unwanted human was trapped in an awkward situation now.

 “I’m really sorry.”

“Okay,” said Swensen.

The unwanted human retreated back into her room after some hesitation. The giggling expression was gone and so was the cheer. For a second, Swensen felt bad for her overt hostility, that she was responsible for taking the joy of another human being until she remembered that this person was responsible for taking big chunks of her happiness away.


The unwanted human would likely call her sister and in a worried tone, tell her, “Your sister is mad at me.” Which reminded Swensen, she needed to send her sister a long text about being less dumb about opening their home to friends. In a regular world, people received friends. But not in this house. The least her sister could do was respect that. Swensen was currently reading “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins and it appeared that genes were primary living things while humans were secondary survival machines for the proliferation and survival of genes. Genes found good hosts to expand their gene pool.


The fact that Swensen was standing here in her kitchen, making a cup of tea, indicated that hermit genes had picked her body to procreate. Swensen’s body was the perfect survival machine for retaliating to domestic intruders. She wouldn’t be this way otherwise. And if Swensen produced ( which was highly unlikely given her aversion to a typical life), she would pass on 50% of her genes to her offspring. She was pretty sure the retaliating genes would be among the 50%. The water boiled and Swensen took her blue mug. She would have tea, a bun and watch a mindless vlog. After that, she would text her sister to get that unwanted human being out of the house pronto.

********


Swensen walked across the street, Victoria’s Secret wafting from her swishy stride. She had decided on the pink dress with spaghetti straps and a layered skirt. It cost her RM35 from an online China store and another RM60 for alteration. The end result was a truly pretty dress that showed off her legs and low-carb silhouette. She had curled her hair, a 7-minute affair that she wasn’t very skilled at. The curls were haphazard, yet still looked like she made a lot of effort. Too much in fact. Will better not think she was into him.


“Swensen, is that you?” someone called. A tall guy in a pink shirt and slim jeans waved at her. “Jesse?” she said moving towards him. He was a friend from her hometown. The last they saw of each other was when they were 16. Back then all they did was look at each other when the other wasn’t looking. She had seen from his twice-a-year Facebook posts that he did well (at least on the surface), living a life that involved being put in various countries. Jesse had an eloquent way of bragging about his giant responsibilities that only a Piscean could call a bluff. She made sure to minus 50% as exaggeration like she did for all men. But she had no doubt he was doing better than average. Jesse had always been smart, articulate and confident.


“Hey, come here you,” he said wrapping her in his arms. He held her for a little too long and Swensen became self-conscious. She hadn’t worn a bra today because the cut of her dress called for that. Jesse had probably figured that out by now. He let her go and smiled happily.


“Swensen, you look great. How have you been?” he asked. At 16, he had been boyish and good looking. He still looked good and maintained a body today, but Swensen concurred she looked better. Life had probably played him a few harsh balls and he lacked a “current edge” that would have gotten Swensen standing closer. “I’ve been doing okay,” she said. Jesse smiled knowingly. “Oh you’re too humble,” he replied. “You seeing anyone by the way?” He touched her arm and leaned forward. Swensen appreciated the directness. “No, I’m not. And you?” He couldn’t help smiling more. “I got my heart broken a couple of years ago, so I’ve been a little careful in dating. It’s no joke getting your heart broken.”


She could tell Jesse was laying on the vulnerability and she silently rolled her eyes. Men and their need for masculinity and their weakness for women. Perhaps some men just needed women to function, to create great lands and fight big wars. None of that would happen without a woman next to them. Life was tough and a life partner helped plenty in navigating life. That Swensen knew. Still, this arrangement meant that men gave a lot of leeway to women and women took it and accepted follower status. The end result was that women were almost always judged on looks and Swensen hated it. It was why airheads with higher cheekbones thought themselves superior. Anything that wasn’t equal and clearly defined one as a leader and the other the follower turned her off. But being Asian, Malaysian, and Chinese, these ideologies and types of lives surrounded her.


“So where are you going? You look great?” he said.

“I’m off to see a friend for dinner,” she replied. “And I probably should get going.

“That’s a lucky friend you’re seeing,” said Jesse playfully. Swensen liked him a little more. “Give me your number before you go. Let’s meet up this Saturday?”

“I’ll give you my number but can I come back to you on Saturday? I just gotta check my schedule, because my mom’s in town.” Swensen lied. She couldn’t immediately commit to a date when she wasn’t intoxicated with attraction.

“I’m gonna call you,” said Jesse, handing her his phone. She keyed it in and gave it back to her.

“So good to see you,” he said hugging her again and kissing her on the cheek. Okay, that was unexpected. And if Swensen admitted, a little nice. She would rethink Saturday. They parted ways and Swensen hurried on to Birch where Will was probably already waiting.


Birch was an elegant restaurant with orange chandeliers and a dim ambience that made for important dinners. Each table she crossed housed a girl with hair that showed effort and a dressy outfit. Will was already there at a well-placed table, looking attractive in his shirt and khakis.

“Hi Swensen,” he said, standing up. “Wow, you look great.” He hugged her and again it was a little longer than it should. Perhaps, she would wear a different dress the next time. This RM36 online dress and its alterations were clearly aphrodisiacs.


Dinner was pleasant and the conversation was continuous, although devoid of chemistry, at least for Swensen. Perhaps it was the fact that Will just wasn’t her physical type. She couldn’t summon any sexual attraction and it translated to less laughter on her end, less need for her to reach out and touch his arm.


Will had brought up the idea of his openness to finding someone to be with, in a relationship. Swensen had nodded with understanding while eating her breadstick. She often felt men ( at the least the one she met) were needier than women ( no, make it just her). Or maybe they were simply ready and being honest. She should give credit for that rather than find it disdainful. Any other woman would be delighted with a declaration of relationship willingness, but Swensen found it unattractive on the wrong man. The man she was meant to be with wouldn’t have to say it. They would just know. Swensen’s horoscope said plenty about her tendency to live in La La Land. How dare they?


She was happy when Will got the bill two and a half hours later. “I’m sorry we can’t continue on with a drink,” he said. “I have an early meeting tomorrow and I need to get an early night.”

“No worries, she replied brightly. “There’s always other times.”

She parted ways with him in the lift lobby. “There are bright lights, no worries, I can find my way to the car.” She hugged him out of obligation and scuttled off. Once in the car, she breathed a huge sigh of relief. Dates sometimes felt like work. She sent a text to her buddy Cat. “Ice cream?” Then off she drove, music blasting in the car.

***************


When Swensen reached home, the unwanted human and yet another awful human being had planted themselves in her dining table. Her twin sister was there, entertaining them with topics she had heard a million times. Wasn’t it presumptuous of this unwanted human to bring a friend to their home, no doubt upon approval of her stupid sister? Still, had this human no decency and EQ?


Swensen couldn’t smile. “Hey, that’s such a cute dress,” the new awful human offered. She was in her twenties with an insignificant voice. the type that needed 20 interactions before some form of beauty emerged. The cleavage she displayed was definitely for male attention even if it was countered with a feminist battle cry. It looked like forced and sagging cleavage, breasts that were there but not from the best stock. Or maybe Swensen was just being a bitch. Perhaps because Swensen was so flat, she found an overt cleavage a little distasteful.


Swensen grunted an “Mmmm,” and swanned upstairs. Whispers followed from the unwanted human being to the awful human being to her stupid sister who had allowed this entire “Intruder-Spring” to occur. Swensen shut her bedroom door loudly and put on her lowest key rap music. She didn’t want to hear anything downstairs, lest her temper flared. Off she went to take a shower, cleaning her face with cleansing oil and then slathering a blue mask on her face. She sat on her bed fresh as a flower and opened her iPad.


Swensen was on Chapter 6 of The Selfish Gene and damn, she needed an iced coffee. She sighed in frustration. If she went down, she would potentially halt the proliferation of this recessive gene that barged into people’s homes. But Swensen carried genes that were hugely self-conscious and that stopped her from walking down looking like Avatar.


In the end, she texted her sister to deliver iced coffee to her bedroom. She hadn’t been particularly nice to her sister since the intruders came so she wasn’t sure her order would transact. But she got a “Yeah, yeah” reply. In minutes, the clink of an iced can was heard outside. “They are leaving soon.” Came the next text from her sister who had clearly caught wind of her feelings.

“Joy to the world and the Lord is come!!” came her quick text reply.

***************


Dance class was a wobbly affair. Today, they were dancing in heels to a yet another lovelorn Bruno Mars song. Tried as she could, Swensen couldn’t muster the sex to flavor her dance. Instead, she tottered precariously on her heels and spun clumsily. Bruno Mars clearly wasn’t her man, but she tried anyway while her instructor spun provocatively before her. ”Look at me. None of you are giving that bedroom feel,” said her dance instructor. Swensen sniggered. Often, she felt that sex overtook dance in these bedroom numbers.


She couldn’t help relating everything to The Selfish Gene now. The expanding pool of deceptive men meant that women would level up their feminine wiles. Sex was the easiest way to get a man’s attention, and certainly, dance and sex were immediately alluring. And that seemed to the end-all for most women, much like how cars and money were men’s. A woman who had the moves thought herself superior to one who was lesser. Clearly, her dance instructor thought so.


But you could swing your head provocatively, and tempt your man for 20 minute-sex all day. But then what? Attraction was based on a lot more than your bedroom prowess. Swensen wasn’t a natural in writhing her body and she didn’t like this routine. She was happy when the class was over.


The girls gathered downstairs for supper in the noisy mamak shop. It was a happening night and the shop was filled with mainly twenty-somethings parlaying their terrible food choices. Nasi lemak, giant cuts of chicken chop, sugary teas, sweetened juices, and Vitagen concoctions. Thursday nights were her sinful nights and Swensen flipped the menu with glee. Today’s choices would be a milky Vitagen drink doused in mint, and a buttery Indian bread to be dipped in dal. Once the orders were made, the phones came out in full force.


Jessica would spend 10 minutes updating her Instagram Story. Andrea would wait for someone to make conversation and Caitlyn would be scrolling her social media feed with her long awkward nails while replying WhatsApp messages that never really needed replying. Swensen supposed she could do those, except that she was trying to wean herself off social media. She didn’t get too many messages and social media was often dull if you really thought about it. It was just that the first high of seeing a message on your phone but the actualization of reading it never fulfilled. Unless of course, it was…….. some testosterone you were eyeing.


“Ooh Jeff finally agreed to meet my parents,” announced Jessica. “He told me yesterday. Andrea perked up. “Was he reluctant?” Jessica settled in to dominate the conversation like she always did. “Oh actually, he’s more than happy. He told me he was so nervous about meeting my dad, and he asked me a ton of questions about how to prepare.”

“Make sure you sit down with him and cover all your family basics,” laughed Caitlyn.

“I told him firmly that household chores had to be shared 50-50. He’s quite a pampered momma’s boy.”


It was Swensen’s turn to play with her phone. A lot of conversations with the girls revolved around their boyfriends, their would-be boyfriends and the behaviours of men. She participated in them but she often felt hypocritical. She had ventured to introduce different topics, but it wasn’t always sustainable. Much like an “Evolutionary stable strategy” in evolution, a strategy’s workability depended on the existing strategies in the environment. Her non-boy strategy didn’t work too well. This was an environment where females made it their life mission to understand a man, get a man, and then spend the rest of her life appeasing him.


Wasn’t adapting part of evolution? What genes did anyway? Yes, Swensen knew she was a little snob, but she often wished there were more females who didn’t live their lives revolved around their men. It was always her leading the feminist quest, always her girls came too when a man angered them. Like they needed her to rile up to make them feel better. Sometimes Swensen just brought up gossip to get the conversation going. It seemed like the easiest way to get the conversation going.

“Whatcha think Swen? When would you want to introduce your man to your parents?” Caitlyn asked. Perhaps because Swensen had just hastened the farewell of an unwanted bacteria from her home, she felt emboldened in speaking her mind. The Selfish Gene opened up new pathways of confidence in her understanding of life. She had always been accommodating in entertaining topics that never resonated with her. But really. She had been dancing with these girls for a while, yet they didn’t seem to know her very well.


“Do you think your boyfriends spend time talking about you girls the way all of you keep going on about them?” Swensen asked.

“Of course not, they are guys,” laughed Caitlyn, in her guileless airy state.

Swensen pressed on. “Ya, they don’t’ spend time talking about you girls, don’t you think you don’t have to keep talking about them” pointed out Swensen.

Caitlyn was caught for a second. The conversation had a lot more investment now. “No, I do many things like hiking and dance,” continued Caitlyn merrily. “And you know how much I care about my job and clients Swen.” Jessica was a little jolted, being that boys were her supposed industry. “Hmmmm, maybe they do talk about us but in a different way,” she said unconvinced.

“Yeah,” said Swensen, knowing what she was about to say wasn’t very kind. “They probably talk about it for 5 seconds before they go on to football or some other typical male topic.”


“Jeff’s not like that at all,” said Jessica.

“He’s still a guy. He may not talk typical male stuff but I guarantee he doesn’t go on about his girlfriend to his guys. It just doesn’t happen.”

The damage was done. Swensen pretended to stir her iced drink that just arrived. Caitlyn overreacted at the arrival of her chicken nuggets. Jessica looked a little chastised.

“So anyway, there was this unwanted human being in my house,” said Swensen changing the topic, determined to make supper a fun time, yet unwilling to continue with the boyfriend topic. The girls were at a loss to recover and Swensen knew the life jacket was imminent. “She drank my tea and brought her ghastly cousin over.”

Andrea laughed and all eyes looked at Swensen with interest. “Honestly I’m shocked at how very little manners some people just have,”

“Oh let me tell you about my cousin,” stated Jessica. “You would slap her.”

“She was just too cheap to get her own airbnb and crashed in our place,” said Swensen.

“Hah! I have so many clients like that,” snapped Caitlyn.


The life jacket was worn and each passenger was afloat and safe. Supper went on amid buttery bread, Vitagen drinks and plenty of camaraderies. Swensen drove home happy that night. Compromise was important in friendship and putting up with things we didn’t immediately like were part of friendship. It’s just that sometimes, the one doing the compromise was the other person. That was something Swensen was actively learning.


Will’s text message came when she reached home. “Hey Swen, how about dinner this Sunday?”

Swensen stared at her reflection in her bedroom mirror, the lines on her stomach still visible after her buttery supper. She was liking the way her body was shaping up. Time for some music.

“I’m heading back to Taiping to see my dog Will,” she texted. “Perhaps some other time J,” Then Swensen disappeared into the shower while J Cole rapped about the pettiness of life in her cozy bedroom.



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