By O Thiam Chin
Zac loved touching himself in public. Sometimes he did it unconsciously, putting his right hand—he could only do it with his right hand—into the pocket of his loose pants (it was harder to touch himself in a pair of jeans; god knows he had tried, quite a few times in fact, but it was always too tight, too restrictive) or Bermuda shorts, and stroking his penis through a hole he has made in the pocket; sometimes, if he was bored on a long bus ride home, or during the monthly marketing meeting, he would reach in and give himself a good round of tugging. Often it did not matter even if there were people around. Often these people—colleagues, strangers or passers-by—would look away, mildly irritated or pretending to be distracted by something over Zac's shoulder. If they continued to look, he would dare them to stare him down, and usually they would back off.
On weekends, after his breakfast at a kopitiam, he would head for the supermarket located in the shopping mall near his flat and wander around for an hour or so, shopping for his groceries and, of course, touching himself. The supermarket was one of his favourite places (the others included the neighbourhood library and the Singapore Art Museum—the latter only when it was showing the nudes [statues or paintings]; Zac did not have a strong preference with regard to the art style, as long as they were realistic enough, and not too abstract or expressionistic). There were people everywhere, and most of the time they were too busy to notice him, a plump 35-year-old man in an army-issued olive-green singlet and black shorts. Zac would walk up and down the aisles, humming a made-up song, picking up a bottle here and a packet there, checking the ingredients list or the expiry date. And all the time, his right hand would be inside the pocket of his shorts, stroking himself or touching his nutsack. It was just his way of relaxing, he reasoned, like how some people habitually pick their nose or dig their ears in public. There was no harm in it, no matter how he saw it; no harm at all.
Occasionally, he might bump into a friend or neighbour at the supermarket, and because it would be rude not to say hi, he would strike up a brief conversation, mostly about the weather, the increasing prices of food, their children, their jobs. Even in the midst of these conversations, Zac would not stop touching himself, his fist in the pocket making languid motions, as if he were scratching a persistent itch. Nine out of 10 times, the person he talked to would never dip his or her eyes below Zac's chest level to see what was going on, and Zac credited it to his ability to hold a conversation with just about anyone. And the one time a person did look down, Zac would pause for a second or two, until the person looked up again. In such cases, Zac would feel affronted, as if the person had done something indiscreet or indecent.
One day, a girl with a ruddy face and a ponytail came up to where he was standing, in the aisle for sauces and condiments. She stopped right in front of him and looked up into his face. She was perhaps seven or eight, so she came up only to Zac's waist, her eyes levelled directly at his trembling crotch.
"What are you doing?" she said.
"What?" Zac stopped for a moment, his hand stiffened.
The girl stared at his crotch, and then looked up into his face, frowning slightly. She narrowed her eyes, more in curiosity than annoyance, as if she were trying to figure out a mathematical equation.
"'Cuse me, what are you doing?" she said again.
"Nothing? I don't understand," she said, and pointed to Zac's crotch, accusingly. "What's in there?"
"Nothing," Zac repeated. "Where are your parents?" He looked around for someone to take her away, but nobody met his glance. Zac kept his right hand where it was, unwilling to remove it from his penis. He felt his fingers twitching involuntarily, waiting to move into action again. He spoke up, this time keeping his voice below a whisper.
"Go back to your parents. Don't stay here."
The girl took a few steps back, but her unwavering stare remained fixed on Zac. Then she squinted and flared her nose. Zac thought he heard a faint snort from her, but he could not be sure. He put the jar of wasabi mustard back on the shelf and started walking in a different direction. Just as he turned on his heels, he heard a small growl, but did not turn to check if it was coming from the girl. He kept his steps slow, steady and measured, and quickly resumed his stroking. He kept at it with a fierce, renewed determination, the green, raw tendrils of anger spreading rapidly across his body.
A small, disembodied voice came up from behind him. "What's in there? What are you hiding?"
The words had a sweet, slightly cloying tone, as if the girl were requesting for a favour or some information. Still, he did not turn around, but walked on unhurriedly from aisle to aisle, steeling himself against this distraction, and moving his right hand with an increased fervency. But no matter which lane he turned into, the girl was right behind him, and this dampened his pleasure significantly. He finally turned around to give her a dress-down.
"Stop following me. Go back to your parents," Zac hissed, lowering his stout body towards the girl, in an attempt to intimidate her. A string of spit landed on his chin and he wiped it off with a quick swipe of his shoulder. The girl looked ready to burst into tears, but she stood her ground and smirked. This was getting fucking ridiculous, being stalked by a girl in a crowded supermarket, and where the hell exactly was the girl's parents anyway, leaving a child by herself in such a place, talking to strangers—what's fucking wrong with them? Parents like these ought to be shot, to have their children taken from them; honest to god, they did not deserve to have breeding rights in the first place. The more he fumed, the faster his hand went, a crazed rodent scampering around in his shorts, looking for an exit.
"What's inside there? You tell me first," the girl tried again, in a flat tone, as if she were almost done with her questions, her patience running low. A shopper standing near them turned to look at Zac, and then at the girl, trying to fathom their relationship to each other. When the man saw the bulge in Zac's shorts, he looked briefly alarmed, his eyebrows coming to a twist on his forehead. Zac returned his gaze with an insolent look: what the fuck you're looking at? The shopper scanned the girl's face, looking for something that might spur him into action. But the girl ignored him, and the man, after assessing the situation for a long moment, left with an audible tsk, giving Zac a disgusted look. The girl folded her arms impatiently, waiting for Zac's answer. Nothing stirred between them, except for the slight movements in Zac's shorts.
And there they stood for some time, staring at each other, each not wanting to be the first to budge. Some of the shoppers walking past them started observing them closely, puzzled and confused. A few children, younger than the girl, pointed their little fingers at them and giggled uncontrollably. Zac's nutsack tightened in anger, in indignation. Why was the girl doing this? Why was she doing this to him? What's wrong with her?
Because this had never happened to him before, Zac wasn't able to keep his thoughts in focus, and in the midst of the Mexican standoff, his mind began to drift, hovering just outside the perimeter of his skull, a separate, detached entity.
In his mind's eye, he saw everything before him—the young girl, the shoppers, the supermarket, his penis, purple-hard and angry—as if it were a series of tableaux suspended in time, each moment cracking and slowly falling away. He could not grasp what was happening; the scenes eluded understanding. Yet he felt connected, in an inexplicable way, to the girl and the feelings she triggered in him—a deep, unsettling sense of indignation and shame. Zac knew that the two of them would remain oblique to each other, confounded by their mutual incomprehension. Zac clung to his thought; he was almost at the edge.
"What are you doing?" the girl said yet again, breaking the film of silence. Her eyes had softened somewhat (did Zac imagine this?), and in their murky, sunless depth, Zac could see a flickering shadow—the seed-pit of his reflection, his unshakeable core of darkness. He tilted his head, and the shadow in her eyes jerked into motion. What did she see in him? How much did she know? In her stare, Zac felt exposed, as if he had slipped from his skin, pushed into the wild.
Zac released his hand the very moment he came in his shorts. A wet patch spread across the front of his shorts, darkening the already dark fabric.
The girl let out a tiny, frightened yelp, as if she had suddenly been scorched. She brought her small hands to her open mouth, and glared at Zac. How could you, her fiery eyes seemed to say, how could you do this? It was not hard for Zac to feel the girl's disappointment in him, from the way she lowered her gaze and later turned her back on him. As she began to walk away, all that Zac could feel was a growing, gnawing pang of self-reproach, as if he had failed at something that he could usually do well with little or no effort.
"Yes, go back to your parents, you fucking little cunt," he said, his words audible only to himself.
Zac stood and watched the girl disappear around a corner. He looked down at his shorts, and then at his right hand. He wiped his sticky fingers against the fabric, and tried to straighten out his thoughts. He counted slowly from one to thirty in his head.
Even before he took his first step—he did not know where he ought to go next; his day was clearly ruined, and he did not like the beastly sense of desperation that had crept into him, making him feel paralysed, helpless—his hand was slowly finding its way back into his shorts, gravitating towards the only part of him that he knew intimately, unreservedly.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017