She knew a long night of screaming awaited her, she could sense it. Her stomach had been slowly taking hostage of her body, deciding what she could eat, drink, wear. It was not a benevolent hostage taker either; more Somalia than Sweden.
“Mr Tan, I need you to fill up some of this paperwork.”
Her husband planted a quick peck on her cheeks and rushed off with the nurse, his maternity travel pack slung over his shoulders as he prepared for war.
She was left on the wheelchair, ingesting copious amounts of air as she waited to be wheeled into the emergency room.
Her hands pressed her stomach to calm him, to show that she was on his side. A gesture that seemed to have infuriated him instead, as the contractions became fiercer and her breaths more hurried.
She bowed her head down, but could not remember the prayers or the hymns or the parables.
Her hands clutched the ring being worn around her neck as she slowly mouthed Michelle Williams’s part of the song.
She held onto her ring as her last syllable came out as a scream. She would be able to wear it on her finger once the pregnancy swelling subsided.
The ring had always been a bit snug, but the pregnancy had made it feel like she had to make a choice between ring and ring finger.
She remembered him slipping on the ring, and how she gave a grunt of pain as it scraped the sides of her finger.
Whenever she thought about that moment of vows and promises, her mind almost always played it backwards. She saw him taking off the ring and her walking backwards through the doors of the chapel and into freedom.
The weather had beaten down, chastising them for their promiscuity. Society had been more passive in its judgement, braving the Suns scorn to attend their wedding, distancing themselves from the sun’s stance.
The wedding was rushed. The guests dressed well, but it felt as if they had lingered too long from the previous wedding and were stuck there. The groom looked far too small for his tuxedo; a boy asked to fill in for a man.
He adjusted his cufflinks without looking down, the smile never leaving his face. There were too many cameras; he would not give them the satisfaction.
“Oh right here, at 18.35. See that frown, you can tell he doesn’t want to be there.”
No, their gloating would be confined to his back, their evidence arbitrary, hearsay grounded in nothing but tradition. He fixed his eyes on the back of the chapel determined to light up at the first signs of his bride, tears that he had held would give way as beauty overwhelmed the dam he had constructed for the day. Not a string of meat for the vultures.
There was no need for prepping, no need for a sleepless night making faces of increasingly comic adoration at his mental image of his bride. She was breathtaking.
A flowing dress with a train that seemed to stretch to the past, the contours artificially tapered to hug her body. The strapless bustier held up by invisible strings that would have slacked slightly a month ago.
A white that seemed to blind in beauty, to hide flaws that darker colours failed to. Her face glowed with an ambiguous origin, an alien cause that put all radiance seen before in this chapel to shame.
Her eyes caught that glow, the hazel in it shone brighter than it ever did. A glow that seemed to surpass love or occasion.
It was a shame that such beauty was wasted on onlookers who were fixated on her stomach, looking for evidence, strings of meat.
Her father led her down the aisle, giving her away to the man who defiled her. His arms clamped tightly down on her daughter’s hand.
A futile attempt at consolidation, catching time under his armpits only to see it gracefully skip away all around him. They walked like they always did, but there was no laughter. Father and daughter walked like they always did, but for the last time.
The crowd stood up in unison as they started their walk, straightening their skirts and patting down their pants, smiling at the bride. All fathers and mothers sending their child off, their judgement left on the chapel seats.
His breathing quickened. Love was a word they had thrown around carelessly during their two-year courtship.
They used it as a sign-off at the end of a courtesy call, a knee jerk reaction after obligatory pecks on the cheek.
This time was different; the words waltzed across his chest, diving through his pores, twisting his insides. It clung onto his heart as the music matched her strides. It dissipated into his blood stream, infecting everywhere that blood flowed.
He silently thanked the cameras and the vultures for giving him the defiance that stayed where his strength failed.
Back of the chapel
Her father wasn’t walking her down so much as being dragged by her. She didn’t blame him; it was like giving up your favourite toy to a school bully.
She could feel the stares. It grabbed her back, pulling her apart from all sides, demanding her attention, and she rejoiced in it. She bottled the gasps and packed the adoration. Her walk timed perfectly to Canon in D Major.
She walked deliberately, each step a declaration of intent, a rebuttal against the whispers. She made her way to her soon-to-be husband’s side, eyes gazing upon him for the first time.
It was unfair that a man wears a tuxedo far more often than a woman wears a wedding dress. There is no sense of shock, no waltzes in her stomach, just a fleeting acknowledgement of effort.
Her father let go of her arms as they neared the altar, leaving her to climb the steps alone.
What she wouldn’t give to walk at the moment, to walk away from the elevator music drilling into her womb.
Perhaps the staff were confirming with her husband whether she was really pregnant, better be safe than have their surgeons find a misshapen watermelon underneath her gown.
The place was full of unpregnant people. That was how she saw the world now. There was just one other pregnant woman, she tried to make eye contact but that lady was looking down as well. She glanced at the lady’s belly; her own stomach seemed larger, rounder. Maybe it was the angle, although she wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.
Pregnant lady number two’s husband suddenly appeared, holding his own maternity war bag and a sheet of paper. He was sweating profusely, a pool of perspiration beginning to gather on the bald spot at the centre of his head like a pond of nervousness.
The pregnant lady smiled at him as he took her hand and muttered some words of reassurance. How he would be there every step of the way, or how they were going to be alright. A co-authorship of a book he only wrote the forward for.
Her own husband came back just as the other woman was wheeled off, his hand clutching a ticket to the hospital bed. She needed to lie down; the pain was making her palms go white.
He pushed her swiftly through the corridors amidst coughing men and NS boys practising their lines under their breath while narrowing their eyes and touching their forehead with the underside of their hand. “We’ll be okay honey. We’re going to get through this.”
She didn’t respond, but he continued sporadically, rubbing her shoulder and back with alternating hands as he followed the nurse to room 374. The screams echoed through the corridors, filling the place with her anguish.
She was a missionary spreading her message, her teachings. The nurse was saying something but her voice kept getting drowned out by the screaming. Instead, she signalled to the room coming up on her right, and he promptly steered her into it.
The labour room was spacious enough; they had gotten a private room to give her an ease of mind. The spaciousness seemed irrelevant to him though. One of them was basically stuck to the bed while the other had to be at her side constantly. Maybe he just didn’t know how to deal with excess space. The nurse helped him place his wife on the bed, her screams slowly becoming whimpers.
Together they covered her with a pink blanket all the way up to the top of her stomach, the deliberateness making it seem as if a magic trick was about to happen. If they pulled the blanket off in a quick motion, the bump would vanish.
“Please call me if there is any problem,” she muttered as her voice edged closer to the door.
“Thank you, but is there anything I can do to make her feel better?”
She hardly looked up from her board as she rattled off arbitrary catchphrases; “Just stay with her I guess, and talk to her and…call us if anything comes up.”
He did not even have a chance to thank her before she swiftly left the room. The witnessing of a new life must get tiring after a while.
“Jason, can you get me some water?”
He turned around to see his wife breathing at the ceiling, eyes clenched as she muttered some incoherent words. Prayers?
He rushed to his maternity war bag and heaved it onto the bedside table.
He scavenged through the assortment of sweets and canisters of chicken soup, finally spotting the water bottle behind a copy of “HOW To Expect”.
As he triumphantly grabbed the bottle and withdrew from the bag, he saw his wife’s incredulous face staring straight at him.
“What was that?” she asked, her disappointment and fatigue meshing together perfectly.
“What’s what? The book? We bought it together, remember?”
“No, not the book. Is that Monopoly?”
He grabbed the deck of cards from beside the second canister. “Yeah, actually it’s Monopoly Deal baby. My bag isn’t that big. I just thought we could play it if you had to wait a really long time.”
She looked at him with incredulity and let out a hoarse laugh.
“Jason, I’m having a baby.”
The room had become quiet; accusing. That was the problem with large spaces. The silence gets amplified.
“I know, I just, I just thought…I just didn’t think, sorry.” He finished rather anti-climatically.
She went back to breathing at the ceiling as he sheepishly placed the Monopoly Deal into his pocket.
He placed the water bottle on the table, a peace offering to calm the elements.
A verse of N’Sync’s Bye Bye Bye suddenly shattered the silence; he looked at his wife, who had clenched her eyes even tighter in a bid to shut out the noise.
“Baby, I’ll be right outside taking the call.”
A slight nod to assure him she was still conscious.
He made his way out to the corridor and closed the door behind him.
“Hi Dad, are you guys here?”
“Yeah we just arrived. Is Joyce there? Your mother wants to encourage her.”
Shouts of “Jiayou Joyce!” filtered through the phone.
“I’ll pass along the message guys.”
“Can you be a bit more excited? You’re going to be a father!”
“Yeah…I’m going to be a father.” He looked down at his feet and whispered.
“I haven’t even had time to be a husband yet.”
“What was that son?”
Right then, a blood curdling scream pierced through the closed door.
“What was that son?”
He hung up the phone and rushed inside to see his wife contorted in pain, pushing her stomach down, trying to get the assailant off her.
He hit the nurse button as he rushed to her side to take her hand.
Her legs were spread apart as the doctor camped at the entrance, waiting, trying to catch the baby by surprise.
The pain was blinding her senses. She was being delivered to the brink of consciousness again and again. The sweat flowed down her forehead, as the nurse tried her best to stop her eyes from drowning. “Push” had become a mantra churning in her head. The books that she had read were pointless, she wanted to shout and claw someone and fall asleep all at once.
She held Jason’s hand; at least she hoped it was Jason. Her vision was of colours instead of shapes, the man she was holding emanated a bright yellow. She squinted to no avail, the shapes did not form.
“She’s crowning, she’s crowning.”
“What the fuck did that mean?” she thought amidst the resurgence in pain. Did she pass a test? Was she going to be addressed as dame from now on?
“I can see the head!”
More screams of anguish came out of every orifice of her body.
“It’s coming out.”
That was Jason; she could recognise his voice even though her eardrums was wailing. Then it happened. It felt as if her entire body was being torn apart, and being moulded into a new unfamiliar shape.
The screams gave way to cries. A beige ball of light seemed to be the source of that noise. It was tiny in comparison to the other fuzzy figures, but it shone so incredibly bright.
They placed it in her hands, almost blinding her, and she stared at it until her consciousness gave way.
He sat silently on the sofa facing his wife, his head leaning against the upholstery. His eyes glazed over from the lack of sleep.
The television was running a very old episode of Mr. Bean. Either the one where he had to rush to a dentist or where he got his head stuck in a turkey.
Before he could probe the issue further, she had begun to stir. The volume was lowered and he made his way to the bedside. Her eyes fluttered open, like a newly uncased butterfly spreading its wings.
“Feeling better dear?”
She absentmindedly nodded as she surveyed the room. With each sweep of the room, her movements became more flustered.
“Where is he?”
A tinge of jealousy erupted in him but he swallowed it, a bitter taste of his own flesh.
“He’s in the nursery; we put him there for a while so you can rest up.”
“How long was I asleep for?”
“About four, five hours? It’s nearly eight.”
Her muscles reacted instantaneously, using the little strength she had to try and push herself out of the bed.
“Oh no, he’s been alone for 5 hours?” She mouthed through her colourless lips.
“No we just put him there. Had to show him off a bit first.”
She relaxed her stance, slouching back onto the bed, completely exhausted.
Everyone had seen her boy, bathed in his light, everyone except her.
“Yeah it was so packed just now,” he exclaimed while fluffing her pillow.
“They were all just passing him around like some mythical creature, like they had never seen a baby before.”
Why was he getting so excited? She had given birth to him, she had held him in her hands, his light was hers.
“And Uncle Tom nearly dropped him, that gap toothed idiot.”
“I want to see him,” she suddenly interjected.
“No, I want to see my Jake.”
Her Jake, not theirs. But again, he swallowed it.
“Okay, we’ll go see him together.”
“No, I want to see him alone. Can you buy me dinner, I’m starving.”
Her eyes were clouded, the hazel struggling to make its way to the surface.
“Oh okay. What do you want? I still have the chicken soup I made you.”
“No, I want something good. Some Tau Huay.”
“Sure honey, I think the cafeteria has…-”
“No, I want good Tau Huay, the one from Rochor.”
“But we are in Bukit Timah.”
“I want some Rochor Tau Huay.”
He breathed, exhaling a white flag that he presented meekly to the victor.
“Okay, sure, no problem.”
She knew he was angry; he always used three paraphrases when he was angry.
Yet, she revelled in it. How dare he take her glory?
He grabbed his wallet and headed out the door, exchanging a quick goodbye with the back of her head.
His long strides and anger took him to the lobby in no time at all. He found it hard to believe that every customer service operator at Comfort was busy at the moment.
“Do you need me to give you a ride?”
He turned to see a man oblivious of the chasm in his teeth staring back at him, grinning widely.
“Hi Uncle Tom.”
Joyce had summoned the strength to sit up on her bed, her toe tasting the cold of the ceramic in a search for slippers.
The act of walking seemed such a daunting task; her legs seemed to have grown defiant, unruly after the long vacation.
She found her hospital slippers after getting her soles sufficiently dusty. She bent over from her perch at the foot of the bed, sliding her slipper on.
The button to call for the nurse was right beside her but she refused to press it. They had taken away her child, assuaging their sins was the last thing on her mind.
She walked gingerly to the door and clawed it open, dragging her body to the nursery.
A few nurses asked her where she was going but all they received were stoic silence and subtle shakes of the head.
The nursery was on the third floor, a short walk from the escalator. She approached the nursery with bated breath, her heart pounding at her rib cage, demanding to be let out.
There was a woman inside the nursery, the pregnant woman from the lobby.
She was carrying her child, smiling down at that tiny figure, her nine months of toil vindicated.
Joyce caught a glimpse of the infant, her cheeks drooping as she lay contentedly on her mother’s arm. He had the most beautiful eyes. It was not particularly big and he had probably just opened them. It was the clarity of it that was so enchanting, the idea that if you stared long enough, you could see into his soul.
She tore her eyes from the scene and looked around the room, pressing her face to the nursery window to try and figure out where her child was.
“Hello Mrs Tan, are you looking for your son?”
It was the nurse that wheeled her in earlier. Her name tag said Luci Fer? Lucy Feng. That made more sense. She nodded twice.
Lucy Feng signalled her into the room while placing her index finger on her lips, sporadically changing her gesture, placing both palms together and resting her cheek on them.
The nurse brought her to the crib diagonally opposite the cooing mother. She picked the wrapped bundle up and handed it ever so gently to Joyce.
She recognised the weight that was thrust upon her. But the light, she felt no light. It was wrinkly and small and his forehead seemed to be on the verge of converging into his skull. She was disgusted by the hands that reached out to grab her and the eyes which were shut tight.
She pushed the baby back to the nurse and ran for the door, away from those fingers that were closing around her neck.
Uncle Toms’ car was a white Honda Civic; the white seemed to have come about from an abandonment of the car’s previous colours rather than a stylistic choice.
The hinges moaned as he woke them from their slumber. He apologetically opened the door and slid in.
“So where do you wanna go?”
“Rochor, the eating house area. Thanks Uncle Tom.” Jason continued pulling on the stubborn seat belt, which only extended to his right nipple.
“Ah, my niece is having cravings already ah? Good, must treat your wife well. She’s the mother of your child,” as they exited the hospital car park.
He sat silently and toggled with the radio, but no matter which direction he turned, it was the same two deejays arguing in a foreign language – Lithuanian?
Uncle Tom had gone on to talk about why the Honda Civic was the car of the future.
His mind though, refused to brush over the paradox that had just been presented; he was unable to swallow it.
“How can she be all mine and be all his too?”
The last fleeting compliments of the Honda Civic dangled from his lips.
“Smooth steering… wait… who is the other person?”
His fingers wrapped around the radio knob, feeling the grooves scratch his ring finger.
“Wait… Jake, as in your newborn?”
He kept tinkering with the radio, listening to the static between the channels.
She splashed her face with water, trying to erase the image from her head, to flush the thoughts out of her mind.
How could he look so different from what she had imagined? That wasn’t the baby she wanted. Why was that plain woman blessed with all that she had not been?
What gave her the right? She had a husband that was balding, her face was flat and unimpressive, a wasted gift of beauty on the undeserving.
She looked at the mirror, drops of water hanging off the edge of her cheeks, as if being drawn back down to the sink.
The mirror was clouded and her eyes looked murky in the reflection. The envy had coloured her veins.
Her crow’s feet made it look as if the murkiness was spreading, slowly taking over her face. She stepped back in shock, disgusted at what she had seen.
She felt the faint thud of a wall against her back; she slowly slid down, her legs giving way after the dash to the restroom.
She crouched on the floor hugging her knees in remorse at the thoughts that had run through her head, her legs wet from the tears that flowed from her tainted eyes.
“Two Tau Huay please, ta pao.”
He glanced at his watch; it had taken him about 20 minutes to arrive here. If he could get a taxi quick, he could probably get back to the hospital within the hour.
He had thanked Uncle Tom for the lift and assured him that he would have no problem making his way back.
The rest of the trip had been an increasingly heated discussion between the Lithuanians. They had tried to laugh it off but neither found the willpower to pursue anything but silence.
He handed the money to the uncle and took the Tau Huay. He checked his phone, dismissing the cheer-up text from Uncle Tom, but there were no texts from his wife. She was probably cooing over Jake, carrying him in her arms. She had probably forgotten about the Tau Huay. A pang of jealousy struck again as his grip on the plastic bag tightened.
They used to come and eat here during the early stages of their relationship. It was always packed to the brim with customers; the shouts for Tau Huay and Hokkien swear words swirled around like a rapidly escalating typhoon. But they could always hear each other, their voices ringing clear, the laughter serving as their own personal soundtrack.
Tau Huay in hand, he made his way back through the dimmed streets leading to the taxi stand, his hurry to get back to his wife dissipated. Now, he just wanted to take in the memories, retracing the steps they use to take as a couple.
The line of shops did not fade away as much as it had its volume turned down. The streets seemed darker than the ones he remembered walking down, the sidewalks narrower, the cracks in the pavement more deeply indented.
He had taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a quiet he did not care for. A drunken man was holding a building for support. In his beer soaked eyes, the relationship between the wall and him was more symbiotic than parasitical.
The night walkers had also started to come out of the shadows, meandering around streetlamps that cast a pale glow in the darkness. Passing through both spectrum of light but occupying neither.
He turned around to make his way back but he lost his footing on the narrow walkway. He fell, left knee-first onto the concrete floor, the other outstretched leg trailing behind. His palms lay flat on the ground, stopping his fall like an Olympic runner waiting for a pistol shot.
He felt the container crack and the Tau Huay spurt out, the soft bean curd staining his shirt. He brought both knees together, kneeling beside the broken containers as tears started to form in his eyes.
He had been looking forward to that last meal with her, just the two of them.
“Hi, shuai ge.” A husky voice called out, cigarette smoke following the syllables.
Maybe he was already too late; there would be no more meals with just them.
The clomping of her stilettos grew louder and slower. “You look a bit sad. Do you need me to cheer you up?”
Joyce was no longer only his wife, she was a mother. But was she ever truly only his? He had torn her away from her father, only to have her torn away too. He understood her father’s anger now. It seems so incredibly selfish but he just wanted her to himself, for just a while longer.
The stilettos came to a stop, and she squatted down to look him in the eye. “How about it? Eighty dollars and I’m all yours.”
All his. Someone who was all his.
Joyce rushed to the nursery, guided by feeling rather than sense. The mirror had frightened her, a fear of what she was becoming.
That was her son and she had just pushed him away, like he was a stray begging for food.
She swung the door open; both the nurse and the other pregnant lady was gone. She made her way swiftly to Jake’s cot and picked him up, cradling him closely to her bosom. She repeated her apologies, made up promises and pledges to be a better mother.
Her breathing was heavy and she could see him reacting to it, grabbing the source of disturbance. She kissed him on the forehead and continued cuddling him.
She rocked him slowly, soothing the flailing arms and massaging his little fingers. It was the tiniest thing in the world so she made sure not to squash it.
She took him for a slow walk, bouncing him ever so slightly as they made their way across the room.
She looked at the other babies in the cots. There were some with eyes unopened, and some who looked directly at her, following her every movement with their newfound vision.
Her heart sank; they were far cuter, their faces less wrinkled. They all looked more like a child, more like her child.
She clutched him tighter to her chest, holding him closer to her heart. She quickened her footsteps as she made her way back.
She did not want to hurt Jake, to let him experience the heartache of rejection a second time before he reached a day old. She wanted nothing more than to place him in his bassinet and get some much needed rest to clear her head.
But a pair of eyes distracted her from the goal, a clear pair of light brown pupils that seemed to paralyse her. The baby from the unworthy couple was staring right at her, calling out to her.
Her grip slackened on Jake as she edged closer to those eyes, her heart clawing its way out of her flesh, demanding to meet him. He represented a connection that was stronger than anything she felt for her own son.
Just a quick hug, all she wanted was a memento from the child that would never be hers.
She placed Jake down beside him, the inferiority shone brighter and she hated herself for not loving who she was supposed to.
Her hands trembled as she picked the brown-eyed child up, warmth spreading over her as he wiggled around in her arms.
Her heart felt the love that she thought Jake would give him. Love, the words waltzed across her chest, diving through her pores, twisting her insides. It clung onto her heart and dissipated into her blood stream, infecting everywhere that blood flowed.
She walked with him, taking the same walkabout, but her steps were slow and measured. She revelled in the glory, the smile stretching across her face.
She stopped at the crib where Jake was lying on his side. She looked at him, that ball of light which had been entrusted to him.
She turned and walked past him, making her way to the empty bassinet which had been Jake’s, and tucked the other baby in.
She told herself this was for the best, that this arrangement was how it should have been.
She made her way back to her maternity room; perhaps she would take a quick nap.
For the first time since she had given birth, a slight smile flickered onto her face.
“Mrs Tan! Mrs Tan,” a voice shook her back to reality.
It was that nurse from before, frantically signalling for her to come back.
She plodded back into the confines of the nursery, like a student who had been caught for something naughty. Lucy Feng was waiting for her in front of Jake’s original bassinet.
“I was outside, and Mrs Tan, I think you mistakenly put the babies in the wrong bassinet!”
She smiled weakly as Lucy laughed, her eyes fixated on the clear brown eyes being lifted away by the nurse.
“But don’t worry about it, no damage done. You must be really tired Mrs Tan.”
She settled him back in his original crib and carried Jake up.
“But you can tell this is your son though.”
She placed Jake into his mother’s arms.
“He has your eyes.”
Thet likes writing, and doing some stuff. However he doesn’t like doing some other stuff.