By Amanda Lee Koe
Delia was the sort of woman you took one look at and instantly knew she'd never once been touched by a man. Perhaps it was in her gait, the awkward twitch of her philtrum before she smiled, or the exact angle at which she tucked her purse under her arm as she headed out for lunch each day. She smelled lightly of mothballs, though there were no mothballs in her wardrobe.
Still, it puzzled her that she was alone. She knew she wasn't beautiful, but she looked around her, and there were so many men who were ugly, too. It seemed clear enough to her that they deserved each other. Yet these men only had eyes for the pretty women in the office building, holding open elevator doors, loaning umbrellas, offering up gifts of uninitiated teh-ping. These pretty women, with their long hair and painted nails, accepted these little putative alms with coquettish smiles, but behind the backs of these ugly men, in the company of the other womenthat is, the ugly women they ragged these ugly men as if I would ever go out with somebody like that. The particular mark of ugliness of the man would be enumerated a face like a bullfrog, the lack of deodorant-application, a lardy bottom paired with tight, outmoded trousers.
Then they would all be expected to laugh in feminine camaraderie, though of course these pretty women knew they were being unnecessarily cruel to the ugly men yes, but more so, and with crystal clarity, it was a jibe at the ugly women, who could not solicit the attention of even these ugly men the lowest of low-hanging fruit. You could see this glint of triumph manifest in the eyes of the pretty women as they filed out of the pantry it was the pantry that was the female equivalent of the locker room, and the prettiest women had the brightest mugs.
Delia had a dull mug, a free gift from one of their client's events. She'd been tempted once by a ceramic magenta mug with a printed black lace motif. She bought it furtively, only to return home to realise she'd left it on the public bus. After that, she knew that even these small, futile gestures performed in the hopes of self-comfort were grating on the nerves of a higher power.
She stopped trying. She once collected dresses one size too small, that she could marginally squeeze into, the zip intermittently nipping her skin. She once bought mineral make-up in hues and iridescences she was unsure of. She held her tummy and stood before the mirror, tossing her hair half-heartedly, but she had plump sloping shoulders and no collarbones. She could never step out of her room, much less her house. To don a pretty dress, to bedaub shimmery eye shadow, was to not know her place. The pretty women would call her bluff. She would be a laughing stock.
There was an economical kiosk tucked away in a corner of their office tower on the ground floor, where variants of tea and coffee and pre-packed boxes of limp beehoon and nasi lemak could be bought cheaply.
Whilst the pretty women often trotted off to the salad bars and the gourmet sandwich and wrap cafes, Delia and her rank would make sojourns to kiosks such as these. It wasn't that the pretty women earned more; it was just that they had better reasons to eat better, to see and be seen. It was like the income disparity gap the rich became richer, the poor became poorer.
Since Delia started work in this building four years ago, the kiosk she frequented most had been manned by a testy, middle-aged woman who handed back her change with oily hands. Today though, as Delia approached the counter, in place of said woman was a beautiful boy in a dirty blue singlet. She cleared her throat, quite suddenly thick and scratchy.
Beehoon please, plus a chicken drumstick. No no, drumstick, not wing. Drumstick. She pointed at the cut of meat from the other side of the display glass.
Sorry, he said in accented Mandarin, putting a hand to his head in an apologetic salute.
Delia found herself searching for something to say. You're new here, she said in Mandarin as she pressed the coins and notes into his outstretched hand.
Are you from China?
I hear it's cold there.
Oh yes. Our winter winds blow from Siberia.
Is that why your cheeks are so rosy?
He looked at her, amused and perplexed. He reached up to touch his cheek, leaving a grease mark. He couldn't have been more than 20.
Someone appeared in line behind her, ordering a kopi-o.
She took her Styrofoam-packed lunch in its thin coral-pink plastic bag in both hands and moved on.
I was just thinking, you might not have been shown around Singapore. Only tourists go sightseeing, right? And, I've noticed, you work weekends too. I was wondering, perhaps, we could go for supper? I know a really good place with chili crab it's a famous Singaporean dish just around the corner.
That's really nice of you, but oh, I don't know.
Maybe I should head home and have a shower and change into something more presentable?
No, don't worry about it. Look, I'll buy you a new T-shirt you can pull over right now, how about that?
Now he's in a T-shirt from Bossini, the ones that say I (Heart) Singapore, an incredibly bad rip-off of Milton Glaser's iconic I (Heart) NY. The ratty singlet is a sour potpourri of testosterone and no-minimum-wage labour in his bag. And there she is, Delia, finding herself cracking crabs for him.
He is sucking on the claws of a crab, making these little guzzling sounds, popping the proffered succulent white flesh into his mouth. She is watching his plump red lips. She breaks off a mantou and mops up some gravy with the doughy interior, handing it to him.
Do you eat crabs in Harbin?
When we catch them ourselves. We fish for carps and crabs by the creek. It's too expensive to eat crabs in restaurants. Then he looks at her sheepishly.
Oh, don't worry about it, she says, realising that she hasn't eaten anything yet, absent-mindedly chewing on the other half of the fried mantou. And then she adds a qualifier, As long as you're enjoying yourself.
He puts down the vermillion crab claw and looks at her seriously, Yes, I am, I am.
She pays and they leave the eatery. She feels exultant, walking beside him. He with his well-built frame and boyish features.
She catches herself staring at the vein trailing his forearm; his work-roughened hands. At the bus stop, she ensures he knows which eastbound bus to take to his dormitory. Her bus is pulling into the bus bay. She bids him goodbye.
Is there anything I can do for you? His face is earnest.
Now that the question is out in the open, it catches her by surprise.
She's lifted a foot and is about to board the bus. The foot hovers mid-step.
She opens and shuts her mouth. He sees from her face that there's something he can do for her but that she doesn't yet know how to say it, and he springs from the bus-stop bench and boards the bus with her. The doors swing shut.
Lei, she says breathlessly, as if he's crossed an ocean for her, and perhaps he has. Dismay, mixed with obvious pleasure.
What is it? He asks, face warm and open and genuine. For a split-second Delia catches herself thinking, it was just one crab. Just one crab and now you're wagging your tail at me, rolling over. She thinks it in a grateful, simpering way, as if she might like to cry.
It was just I was wondering if you might walk me home.
Delia has never been walked home ever, and she almost says this, pulling back at the last moment: There've been a couple of armed robberies in my estate lately, you see.
It sounds suddenly, precariously like a scoff, but then he's smiling that wide-open smile again, saying, Of course I can do that. Of course I can walk you home.
The 300m from the bus stop to her block of flats have never been dearer. Lei gets the elevator for her, asks after her floor level, presses eight. He walks her all the way to her gate, where the unwieldy potted plants with their eggshells in the soil and the red ribbons tied to the branches of the shrub and her mother's pink plastic sandals, grimy and splitting apart, embarrass her.
But she realises he is completely unperturbed, looking at her as a child might.
Thank you, she says.
Goodnight will you buy lunch from me tomorrow?
You've been buying the same thing from me for a whole week now. Don't it's not so healthy to eat every day, is it? Get something soupy.
She smiles and takes out her keys, glancing at her watch.
Gosh, it's past midnight. How are you going to get back? There'll be no more buses, and taxis will be carrying a surcharge. Here she passes him $20 Take this.
I can walk, he says, but already he is reaching out to accept the two red-and-beige notes.
Delia's in a dress, one size too small. The form of her love handles is visible from the back, dribbling over the elastic band of her underwear. She has bronzed her eyelids. She is wearing mascara, already slightly smudged though it is only lunchtime.
Lei sees Delia in her dress and all the make-up. The moment he does, he knows he's won. A small smile forms at the corners of his mouth. There's a space on either side of our lower lips, under the corners of our mouths, where our canine teeth would have been; traces of things we've lost through the course of evolution. Lei knows he's won, and Delia doesn't even know this is a game.
The pretty women had swallowed their surprise at Delia's appearance not all of it, just enough to remain polite. Delia, you look so different! Delia couldn't have cared. She kept her eye on the clock on the wall, filing her reports diligently, sitting up straighter.
And a drumstick?
She's smiling at him. She checks to see his boss isn't around: Dinner tonight?
The men are crowding around Lei's bunk bed. Some of them already have their penises hanging out of their pants, in anticipatory hands. The room is dark and light is emanating from a brand-new 15-inch laptop screen. Two American women with aureoles large and dark as pepperoni are taking turns to fellate a man, who grabs them roughly by their long blonde hair.
One of the men leans forward to get a better view, elbows on the bed, dislodging the mobile Internet dongle in the USB port of Lei's laptop. Everyone groans. As the lights come on and Lei fixes up the connection again, one of the men nudges Lei.
Lei, can your woman buy me a cellphone too?
Suck my dick.
Give me your cellphone and tell her you lost yours and need a new one.
I said suck my dick.
Lei looks at his dorm-mate in disgust.
Another one chimes in: Does she suck your dick, Lei?
If I wanted her to.
Why wouldn't you want her to?
A third one: I've seen her. She looks like a yak.
Laughter. Well, you can't have it all, can ya.
She's not that bad. Knock it off.
Ooh, Lei. Do you care for her?
Lei turns the volume right back up. The American man has one breast from each girl in each of his hands, his face paused in enacted pleasure.
Do you lot want to continue watching this, or not?
Delia and her parents are watching the 9pm Chinese drama serial on the box telly in the living room. The show ends and the credits roll. Delia's parents agreed this morning that they would bring it up tonight, to come right out and say it.
Ling ah, why have you cut our allowances?
Delia looks from the screen to them, attempting to adopt a blank expression.
Are are things okay at the office?
Things are a bit slow.
Oh, have a job very good already.
Delia excuses herself from the worn PVC sofa. The parts accommodating bottoms and thighs are cracked through, peeling like ripe fruit. She goes to her room, closes the door. Outside, scored by the 9pm Chinese theme song, her parents look at each other, worried they have upset their daughter.
Delia begins typing a message on her phone to a contact she has saved as 宝贝. Baby, like they always said on the radio, and now she has one to call her own.
Baby I miss you, she types in Chinese characters.
Five minutes later, the reply: Me too, baby.
What are you doing?
Thinking of you.
Still thinking of you.
Before before that?
Doing my laundry.
Can't wait to see you tomorrow after work.
Me too. Rest early, sweet dreams.
It's Christmas and she's watching him unwrap his presents. He'd told her about the beautiful ice sculptures they had in Harbin at Christmastime, and she'd said, You must take me there one day, maybe next year? They're sitting in a cafe in a touristy part of town, near a canal that is called a river, plied by repurposed bumboats chockfull of Caucasian and Japanese tourists.
He holds it up; it's a crisp long-sleeved shirt and smart pants. He's been waiting for an excuse for a while now, an exit strategy. What's this, he demands.
I thought you'd look handsome in them.
Are you embarrassed to be seen with me? Because I don't work in an office? Is this what this is?
No, no, Lei, it's nothing like that. I just thought
Well, don't think I'm so happy to be seen with you either. Even the girl who cleans the toilet is better-looking than you.
She's from Malaysia. She cleans the toilet in our building. Haven't you seen her around? Slim and fair, with a heart-shaped face.
He stands up. She's started crying.
What do you want, Lei? I can go get it. I only bought you these because I'd gotten you everything else already the phone, laptop, mp3 player I thought it'd be fun, I just thought you would look handsome, really, that's all.
I've had enough of your face.
Lei, don't you love me? You said you loved me.
He doesn't even bother to finish his lines properly. She catches his wrist.
Don't go. I'll I'll pay you to stay.
This he did not expect. He'd expected to be called a cad, to have been reviled. Angry tears, demands for the gifted items to be returned. But this, this was a whole new level.
He pauses, and she holds her breath maybe this was all an awful mistake, he would say, What kind of question is that, baby, what do you take my affection for? he's opening his mouth now, and he says:
He's in the shirt and pants she got him for Christmas, and a pair of shiny leather brogues. They're strolling down Robertson Quay, and she's looking up at him adoringly. He looks so handsome, really, he does.
The women they stroll past stare a split-second too long at the unlikely couple. It isn't so uncommon for a man here to have a girlfriend out of his league, but you seldom saw an ugly woman with a man much too handsome for her. With a good job too, by the looks of the brogues and the branded leather briefcase.
Whether they are single, or with partners in tow, there's an indignant, bitter taste rising from the backs of their throats, because what she has is one in a millionhe must truly see past the physical hull of her, right into her. This must be love, then.
And in that shining moment as the lips of these women curl, even if it is to turn to their partners to say, Would you still love me if I looked like that?, the facts of the matter are no longer important.
The logical direction of the food chain, obvious only a moment ago, is suspect. It's a fact, not a question: the question is not her love for him, his lack of love for her, if there is love, or even what love is; the fact is that love is out of the question. Only power is left and the turning table is, in passing, suspended and for now, with precipitant clarity, he is ancillary, and she is queen. As the women bat their eyes in contemptuous envy, injudiciously affronted by the anomaly of the pair, Lei is supplanted, and Delia wins.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013