We first met at one of those Old English bars that became so popular in this country over the years because a friend of mine, whom I shall call Jane, had told me that there was nothing wrong with going out six hours after her break-up and that I should try this new cocktail that had a peculiar Singaporean twist to it – whatever that meant, I still haven’t figured out till this day.
So maudlin Jane, who wouldn’t admit the extent of the atrocity her fiancé had committed that night, convinced me – timorous, unsavoury and unmoved Cassia – to perform the time-honoured manoeuvre of waiting for my parents to fall asleep before precariously twisting two door knobs and a metal door latch to reveal what the night had in stall for me.
The Old English bar we visited wasn’t relatively old. As we galloped on in like two adolescent ponies ready for war, I got the feeling it wasn’t relatively English either. Jane brushed it off after attributing it simply to the name of the place. I’d rather not mention names at this point. Nevertheless, it sent quite some chills down my spine when I noticed that the ratio of males to females then was a staggering four to one. Jane, on the other hand, was neck-deep in agonising glee; as coquettish as they could get.
Jane was picked up to dance in the first eight minutes and I was left alone by our table with a Mojito and a Singaporean Genius.
First step, try to look dull, I recollected the memory of my best friend’s advice on avoiding the dreadful mess that accompanied guys at these places. Hurriedly, I whipped out my taped spectacles and brandished it like a chef hot on inspiration. Check.
Second, look around at guys looking at you, then blank them, she once said. Tyrannically, I scanned the area and pampered myself. Check.
Third, put on something extremely incompatible with your current look. I reached into my bag to retrieve a dirty and oversized grey hoodie I haven’t washed in years. I had brought it along especially for predicaments like this. With my broken glasses still on, I began wearing it over my peach floral dress adorned with dazzling sequins, struggling awkwardly with every passing second. Just as my second arm desperately but triumphantly emerged from the hoodie’s sleeves, my entrenched head found its way out, leaving the spectacles on the edge of my nose and unavoidably, a mildly stupefied look.
And there he stood, right in the middle of the two grimy lenses, with greasy and unkempt hair, a repugnant cologne that jolted my memory of Little India, a complexion that could almost light up a room with its propensity for reflection, and the most mismatched boat shoes – with socks – and torn tapered jeans. He then uttered, “I have rehearsed this long and hard ever since I saw you walk pass me, so just hear me out.” He coughed unnecessarily, then, “Can I buy you a drink?”
This guy is impossible, I thought. I couldn’t see how I could possibly be interested in him. That hair? Those lazy eyes. The way his mouth couldn’t close entirely when he wasn’t speaking.
“I understand how it is. Don’t worry about it,” he said.
Okay, I interjected. I couldn’t reject someone as harmless as him. He felt so out of place his face didn’t know what to show, but our eyes have a way of expressing the spirit’s need for truth. His arms began to appear foreign to him as he did not know where to place them. His hair swayed a little at the tip with the unnatural breeze of the air-conditioner. Okay, I said again. I’ll get rid of you soon enough, I thought.
Seven months later, we were seated side by side at a round table covered with an immaculately white tablecloth and on it a huge bowl of yam paste, surrounded by my parents and relatives. I had been invited to my cousin’s wedding with the option of a plus one, and there we were. “His name is Stanley,” I said to the potential aggressors. Perfunctory smiles met. He waved juvenilely. What was with that wave? How unglam. So is his chewing aloud. His absent-mindedness. How he doesn’t wear watches on his left wrist. His pimples even at twenty-two.
He wrote cheesy stories and mailed them to me in the form of a monthly subscription even when we have the Internet. Every letter came in a purple envelope, every envelope a different shade of purple. All his passwords had an association with either my name or the date we met. He probably enjoyed thinking that this was a Jay Chou music video.
He dressed messily. He was so sensitive he couldn’t take jokes about his relatively average build, height and narrow feet. Men shouldn’t carry themselves so delicately, I imagined. Men should be durable. Hubris, maybe. Not tender. His penis was only of average proportion. His teeth didn’t present themselves well either. “I had a terrible bicycle accident when I was 9. I flipped over from the front and landed on my upper lip,” he would say. And there he was, repeating anecdotes. “Yes, I know. You’ve told me. Three times,” I would mutter bitterly.
He sometimes thought he was inspirational. He would craft quotes of his own from time to time, and even though I didn’t think much of them, he would save them in his notepad.
He owned a blog. He used to enter into a celebratory mood when he received likes from strangers on original posts, spurring his negligible pride and courage like a capricious adolescent. I will be rid of you one day, I said, almost out loud.
That night, while we were slow dancing, Stanley said to me, “I’ve rehearsed this long and hard over these months, so just hear me out.” He forcefully inhaled through his nose, unnecessarily. Then, “Will you be my girlfriend and best friend?”
Five years later, we were on a cruise headed towards Hong Kong, celebrating the joyous promotion I had just gotten. I was the new Assistant Head of Finance, and five years from then, I could very well be the Head of Finance if I played my cards right. Stanley had become the writer he had always dreamed of in his talkative slumbers.
We had been living in a flat left to us by his late auntie Cass – Yes. That is how bemusing the grand universe is – for nearly a year. The flat had a very distinct smell, not left to linger by Auntie Cass, but brought into existence by his insufferable fondness of dark colours. The flat had only black and dark grey walls, some in stripes and some in full. There was warm light and warm light only. Due to this general gloom, the breeding of mould on walls was unavoidable, except we didn’t know. It got even more infuriating when it was discovered that our mould were as unnoticeable as chameleons because of the very colour of our walls. We couldn’t find them, and cleaning behind every furniture would have taken my life.
“Don’t worry about them sweetie,” he would say. “They’re not even visible. Let’s just be contented with what we have. We’re both spending so much time together now, like a legitimately wedded couple.”
He didn’t enjoy going out. He’d rather stay in and watch sitcoms with takeaways and cheap wine, forcing me to cuddle up with him in bed. On the first Monday after two weeks of settling in, I woke up to a very familiar purple note on my bedside table. I know that letter, I have a container full of them, I thought as I tore at the opening expertly.
“What a sap.”
He would write me sappy love notes before bedtime now so he could leave them on my bedside table before I woke every Monday. Those tacky stories were better, way better, I concluded. He would snuggle up to me while we were sleeping and hug my legs with his, like a little girl. His dress sense only worsened after he became the editor of a literary journal. Sometimes, he would look like a street dancer. Other times, he would look like a delivery boy. Men shouldn’t be this indecisive, I thought. Every man should have one style and stick by it resolutely.
My coffee sachet was placed on the kitchen table neatly with a tin of condensed milk every morning. He would leave the tin of refrigerated condensed milk there before I woke so that it was no hassle for me to scoop a spoonful of it out. The thought of me not wanting any coffee on certain mornings had never crossed his mind. I also couldn’t stand his habitual teeth-grinding, like the constant plea of a trapped cricket somewhere in the room. I’ll be rid of you and all these one day, I thought.
That morning, I woke up on the cruise to find a ridiculously small envelope in purple sitting on the side of the bed he was supposed to be occupying. Another one? I opened it up to see a ring stuck onto a letter. I flipped it open, and these words appeared – I’ve rehearsed this long and hard over the past couple of months, so just hear me out. He appeared out of nowhere in that instant and hugged my naked waist from behind. With an unnecessarily deep breath, he spoke: “Will you marry me? You’re everything I could have asked for.”
Four years later, we were in an empty flat. The living room had just one 32-inch television mounted on the wall, a lacquered tribal vase with a stalk of rose resting in it and two black office chairs with screechy wheels. Our bedroom only consisted of a super-single bed and the built-in wardrobe left behind by Auntie Cass. He was out of job, out of luck and out of money to finance his debts. An old friend of his had offered him the position of Chief Editor in a new start-up and a share in its profits. His yearning for that prestigious title on a thick veneer door pushed him to contribute all his savings and invest two heavy bank loans. “It’s fine sweetie, he knows what he’s doing,” he would assure me. “I wouldn’t get a loan for anyone else, except you of course.”
Apart from the debts, he had managed to remain quite the same intolerable man. The stories on his laptop – before the writ took it – still formed. He would write them in his inexhaustible notepad every day, neglecting his meals sometimes. My stockpile of purple notes didn’t stagnate because he continued to write me new ones. Every Monday, still. Every letter an original work, still. Every envelope purple in colour, still. He lost much weight from all the writing, making him scrawny and unpresentable. Once in a while, he still quoted himself in an attempt to inspire the both of us, barely.
He still hugged me tightly with his legs in the night.
That morning, I woke up to a silent flat. The silence was not, however, just any digestible morning silence. It carried a profound quality to it, somewhat deep and weary. I couldn’t go back to sleep after having awoken to it, so I cleared my eyes and slipped into my home slippers. I walked into the kitchen and was greeted by a familiar voice in an unfamiliar tone.
“Hi,” he said, standing there with his greasy hair and watch on his right wrist. “Come over here. I would like to speak to you about something.” I traipsed over in my night gown and sat down in front of him on a tall stool. “I have rehearsed this long and hard, so just hear me out.” In that instant, his left eye had let go of a droplet of tear. He ignored its rolling down his cheek and without any pause, said, “I can no longer give you the happiness I have always thought I could and the one I had promised your parents. I am now a burden that’s leeching off you. It is time you left me. It’s fine. It’s completely acceptable. No one will blame you for it, not even me. I want you to leave, and I won’t take no for an answer. It’s over.”
I turned away to try to take in what had been said. Incidentally, my gaze was set on the kitchen table. Seated neatly on it were three things – my cup, a sachet of OWL’s white coffee, and a cold tin of condensed milk.
I’ll be rid of you, one day, I thought.
Chester Tan is a travelling writer on his RTW trip. He writes from village to town, city to country, sometimes in a semi-posh country house, other times in a tent in the mountains. He gets easily excited by English literature and humour, has had seven cats to date, and is on his way to leading the van life across the globe. His fiction has been published in the UK and Singapore.