Beach Balls Tell Me To Marry You

by E. P. Chiew

Ramez is adopted. Shazia writes this in the pristine white sand on the beach with the discarded stalk of a banana leaf, watches the foam erase it clean. She, with her generational history spanning at least two centuries back to Srinagar, thinks of her own sense of place as a crochet stitch in a braided rug of family genealogy. But Ramez, her fiancé, he doesn't know where he comes from. If you don't know where you come from, do you ever know where you're going? Shazia wonders. Plus, he has a speech impediment.

She can see Ramez back at the Tiki Bar lifting two glasses of juice with miniature parasols, talking to the bar-man, gesturing with the drinks and spilling some juice over his hand. Because of his stutter, he tends to make pronounced, overbrave gestures. Three weeks ago, before their Langkawi trip, he'd proposed to her, after the successful premier of his art exhibit—abstract photographs that capture the inner beauty of double helixes and chromosomes. A series very different from the rest of his work. Shazia had loved the entire series, had seen that here was a break from the past. Maybe she wants that.

The way his proposal came out (she flushed with embarrassment for him still), will…will…y-y-ye-you me-me-me-, but no matter how he tried he couldn't finish the sentence. He got down on one knee, proffering a blue box, HW engraved all along the ribbon. O...o....o...ppp....en it, he said. But the box was empty.

Oh Ramez! She'd said.

Meh....meh....meh....., his brow knitted together and he gave up trying to make the words come. Get the ring together later. Once in awhile, when he's not conscious of it, entire sentences would roll out of him in perfect formation, like a row of dominoes toppling, so smooth, so mechanical, so unstoppable. Ramez' speech makes her heart itch, makes her want to domino all manner of reproductions of Ramez himself, until she reaches the purer version of him, the unformed putty that was pre-adoption, pre-speech impediment.

Ramez' conception of art is fundamentally reproductive. He's an up-and-coming South East Asian artist in the best Warhol tradition. Until the chromosome series, his work consisted of photographing or painting abstract outlines of objects emblematic of South East Asia—like a congkak (a kind of Malaysian traditional mancala board game)—and rendered reproductions in different colors, sometimes four, sometimes six panels. His art now commands upwards of six figures at the Asian art auctions in Singapore and Hong Kong.

When Ramez proposed that evening, the high-rolling media publicity of the evening overwhelmed her. The gossip columns made much of the fact that the HW box was empty—what an artistic gesture! How prescient! Shazia had to bite her lip when she saw Ramez fluffing the magazines out with pride, insisting on reading those empty journalistic reports to her over breakfast. The evening of the proposal, carried on a bier of rapture and popping camera flashes, she'd said yes. But her mind whispered, too soon. So many question marks. How could Ramez not be bothered by his own provenance? How can an artist not question his point of origin? Or was that what he was, a kaleidoscope of illusion, six panels of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't? And if that's so, how can she ever hope to understand him, or be more than illusion herself?

The beach stretches far and wide, empty except for a beached boat painted in teal and brown stripes. Coconut trees surrender their fronds to a baking sky. Yet, against this perfect backdrop, something colorfully tawdry in the distance catches her eye. Shazia begins walking towards it, swinging her camera strap over one shoulder. She likes to impress Ramez with her photographic eye by shooting unlikely objects. Objects that can exist anywhere—like a patch of clouds or a field of flowers or a lone nondescript tree. Ramez usually responds to these amateurish offerings of her with equally nondescript hmms or aahs.

As she approaches, she sees that it's the trunk of a tree, severed and gnarly, but its base is encircled with deflated, sand-encrusted, storm-tossed beach balls, of all varieties and colors. Balls that tourists and their children had brought, then discarded, like desolate, chiding orphans. Shazia lifts the lens to her eye. Boxed in the square of her lens, the balls seem to bob and feint. For the life of her, Shazia can't seem to hold the camera steady. Then, she realizes that it's not her fingers that are trembling, it's her entire face.

When Ramez catches up to her, Shazia is amazed how much time has passed. I've been waiting for you for hours, he says. I want to eat. Shazia lets her hand fall, the hand that awaits a ring, and the camera dangling on its strap is heavy around her neck. She's shot at least a dozen photographs, going up so close to the balls that what she captures is abstract and microscopic—a mosaic of pattern and color, nothing resembling the original.

What are you doing, Ramez says. When Ramez speaks so fluidly, so normally, Shazia always finds herself taken by surprise, and for a moment, she suspects duplicity. This is not Ramez, but a Ramez impostor.

At that moment when her mouth opens, Shazia looks at his placid features, and thinks about his genetics and the complex splicing of chromosomal love. Her hand picks up her camera again. Nothing, she says. I do not want this man's child, she thinks. It's too carte blanche.

That night, awash in the soft roar of the ocean, they make love. Shazia watches Ramez's mouth open and shut, making silent vowels, and she's flooded with love and consideration. She touches his brow afterwards, and Ramez traps her hand there with his as he drifts off to sleep.

Do you think you will ever want to find who your real parents are? Shazia leans over to whisper in his ear.

Uhmm, Ramez mumbles.

Do you? She tries to prod him awake.

Drowsily, he stretches his head up to plant a kiss on her neck. Shhh, he says.

Shh is not a response, she solemnly tells him. But does he hear her?

The next morning, Shazia is awake before Ramez. She slips on her tennis shoes for a jog, ties her hair into a ponytail. This early in the morning, dawn breaks like a dewy peach. As her feet pump up and down, perspiration pours from her, leaving her thinking what a mistake it is to jog in the tropics.

She passes the tree trunk with its flotsam of variety plastic. This far up, even the tide does not want you, she mutters. Shazia stops and crouches to regain her breath. She begins her flexing exercises, first one leg-stretch, then the other. She doesn't look at the trunk or the beach-balls. Only when she's done with all her leg and thigh exercises, does she begin to gather the discarded plastic, silty and grimy to the touch. She deposits them in a sand groove dug up for a caved-in sand-castle, and sits down to watch. The edge of whitecaps curl at her feet, lap at the plastic, creeping steadily higher.

A voice behind her says. What do you think you're doing?

Shazia turns around. A fellow jogger, a shirtless man in yellow shorts, is standing with legs apart, arms on his hips, surveying her efforts. His eyes flick over her. Shazia finds herself stuttering, trying to explain her reasons. The more she stutters, the angrier she gets. Heat flushes her cheeks. A musty smell rises off her pores. Sweat pools in the folds under her eyes.

The man sneers. Those balls were fine just where they were. Kids playing on this beach might like a stray ball or two.

He glares and she glares. Oh forget it, he says. You're the kind that likes to meddle, I can see that. Can't just let something be.

Shazia swallows. She can hardly believe she's listening to this aggression. Okay, so I'm not a nice person. The man has already turned his back, and he flaps a hand to dismiss her words.

Shazia suddenly feels that she can never marry a stutterer. It's like something stuck in her teeth. She's not a nice person, she cares too much.

From afar, she hears her name being called. It's Ramez shouting from the balcony, shirtless as the man earlier was, wearing his low-riding denim huggers that she loves. It's also the fact and vision of Ramez, her fiancé, leaning way out over the balcony, the fact that he's never known her to be unkind, the fact that he's different from everyone else, because Ramez doesn't just shout from the balcony like any normal person. This time, he's shouting her name while also brandishing a banana.

Shazia laughs. Her heart rushes out to embrace him. Yes, yes, she'll marry him. She waves back. If he asks why, though she doubts he ever will, she has her answer ready.

E.P. Chiew lives in London. Her stories have won prizes and been shortlisted in several places, including the Bridport Prize (1st) and the Fish Short Story Prize (two stories shortlisted, 2012), the Per Contra Short Story Competition (Top 10, 2008), Storysouth’s Million Writer’s Award (Top 10, 2006) and Camera Obsura's Bridge-the-Gap Competition (winner). Most recently, they can be found at The View From Here, The Ilanot Review, Anak Sastra, Metazen, and kill author, among others. She blogs at

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