Excavating labour in the thick of patriachy

“He broke my heart,” my masseuse told me. “How did he break your heart?” I asked. She just spent 10 minutes telling me how she lost her trust for friendship when a friend of more than a decade stood by and did nothing when they witnessed her husband being mugged at a street, somewhere in the past. And there was a thread about money, but my mandarin was not strong enough to get the nuances of it. I am guessing borrowed money and disappearances. It’s not an unfamiliar story.

“When I wanted to marry him, my family was disapproving. He didn’t have a regular job. But my heart was convinced. I felt my shoulders were big enough to carry the both of us.”

So she married him anyway. And he spent his days, doing nothing much. Some drinking. Some spending time with male friends, doing whatever spending time with male friends is comprised of. And she, with a song in her heart, took on a chorus of work. She learnt how to give comfort to tired bodies through cartographing muscle and sinew with her hands at a tui-na centre. She learnt how to bring a slice of delight to the dullness of everyday existence through her voice at lounges at night. She learnt how to make her own space for leisure by drinking beer and shelling communal bags of peanuts with her friends, weaving stories of concern and judgement through each others’ lives. She and her husband had a home, and bought a car.

And then she became pregnant with her daughter, and with that, a different kind of stirring began to compel for a different kind of care. She looked to him for changes – the seismic kind that she could feel was happening in her own life. But he remained unmoved in his inertia. She found herself unable to do that everyday labour of caring for him, thinking for him, providing for him and for the both of them, as well as this new life.

He rested in his comfort. And she was discomfited.

She could no longer work at the night lounge. She could not longer rely on her body as much as she did to shoulder whatever it was that needed shouldering.

The story is interrupted by a knot on my lower back. And she laughed as I let out an involuntary cry of pain as she worked at it with her fingers. Which made me laugh.

This was a few months ago, and I have lost the definition of the story. But he gambled their money away. And got into debt. And broke her heart simply by the betrayal of the promise of some kind of care. There was none. Beyond the immediate pleasure of the smallness of his perspective.

I am reminded of another story that my mother told me about one of her sisters, my aunt. She was quiet, and had a thick rope of vanity running in her silence. Her daughters were beautiful. Famed from the one-road village where my mother and her sisters grew up, and like a snake of everlasting perfume, extended along the pathways of their lives from one city to another. Her eldest and youngest daughters were the most adulated. I only really knew them once the legend has been secured. And they were, without a doubt, beautiful, in many layers of skin.

Each time I saw my aunt, she’d ask me, “You look like you have put on a bit of weight?” And there was an undernote of uncertainty that harmonised with the smug relief that the legend was still, firmly intact. I never understood it, until my mom told me about a husband from a long time ago, that went to the jetty every night to drink and gamble all the money that his small, thin wife made from planting, harvesting and selling sugarcane behind the house. And when there was too little, which was not very far from the stretched edges of just enough, he would grow large and loud in his rage. Throwing his voice, body, chairs, and once, even an axe, across the small room that struck the wooden walls.

Escaping is often our only route out of our lives. And we escape with everything we can scavenge from our meagre lives. Our bodies is all we can rely on at the end of the day. And women are resilient as fuck. And this strength comes from the most disarming of spaces. The skill and craft of care that were sutured into our sinew and gut, had the accidental side effect of being able to perceive of life as larger than who we immediately are, what we immediately need, where we currently stand. It fattens the bones and toughens then hands.

There’s more to this thought. But the rain is distracting me with its persistent softness. And maybe this will do for tonight.