In Places He Finds Himself
By Patrick Sagaram
Leslie stands by the window, watching purple swirls in the dark sky. He is waiting for his friends, Audrey and Chee Keong. They are late. This makes him anxious because everything is ready for them: chilled wine, beef stew resting in the oven. Leslie's one trick, the stew which never fails to satisfy. His friends say they love it. He knows they will finish everything. Especially on a night like this, delicate with a light breeze…
Then he sees them by the covered walkway next to the pool. He lets the curtain slip back so he won't be caught looking and starts the Michael Bluestein record. A moment of stillness, his own little quiet before moody piano notes fill the living room. By then he can hear them outside by the hallway of his apartment.
"You made it," Leslie says opening the front door. "Finally."
"He couldn't decide on which poison," Audrey says before rushing past her husband and into the living room. She takes it all in at once. Glow of lights from the pool. The painting Leslie bought in Melbourne, now up against the main wall. The high fidelity clock leaning against the console table.
"Wow, this place," Audrey says. "You really did it."
"It's not bad," Leslie says, a little embarrassed. "Needs some touch up."
"Looks wonderful," she says. "And the colours."
"You picked them," he says. "Haven't you forgotten?"
"I did," she says. "Didn't I?"
"Yes you did," Chee Keong says. "You were more excited about his place than him."
"Don't exaggerate," Audrey says flashing a hint of annoyance. She then turns and makes her way through the apartment, gathering all the details: Bookshelf, turntable and record collection in the study. In the bedroom, she regards the walk-in wardrobe and king-sized bed in dark wood. Leslie watches as she takes the place apart.
"It certainly doesn't look like any bachelor's pad," Audrey says. "It looks like a grown up lives here."
Leslie blushes slightly, unsure of a reply. He may have gone overboard renovating his own little place partly of the need to prove to his friends: now he feels like one of them. Now he feels like an adult. Leslie may not show it but he compares his life mostly to Audrey and Chee Keong and always it seems like live a fuller, brighter life.
"I couldn't decide on which poison," Chee Keong says pushing a jute bag into Leslie hands. "So I got you both."
"Wine and champagne," Leslie says. "We better pace ourselves tonight."
"We didn't drive," he says.
"Even so," she says.
"If you had only put on the hazard lights," Chee Keong says with absolute certainty. "We would still have the car tonight."
And something comes over Audrey, a little cloud. Andrew thinks Chee Keong may have said something he shouldn't have. Outside the hallway just moments ago were they both arguing? Or was he jumping to conclusions?
"He came out of nowhere," Audrey says. "I made it quite clear."
"Wait a second," Leslie says. "What happened?"
"Some old man in the carpark at Ion," she says. "Tried to squeeze past and hit me right on the door as I was reversing."
"You should always put on your hazard lights," Chee Keong says, voice shaking. "How many times do I have to remind you?"
"Goodness," Leslie says. "Are you OK?"
Audrey nods, while Chee Keong goes on about claims and inconveniences.
"Are you sure you're not hurt," Leslie asks.
"I think so," she says. "I mean, I'm fine."
A passing silence before Chee Keong asks Leslie where he keeps his wine and goes into the kitchen and pulls one from the fridge, wrestles open a bottle. Leslie notices how when they were talking they avoided looking at each other. He feels as if there is something shifting beneath so slowly. But what?
"Anyway," Leslie says. "Thank you, both."
He should be grateful. Who else but Chee Keong helped him move out of his parents' place. At his age it was getting ridiculous for him to be living there. This apartment is an investment, no doubt. And the money was just sitting there. It made more sense to own a place. It was Audrey and Chee Keong who told him about this apartment. A year ago they had viewed a unit here but could not arrive at a decision.
"I was right," Audrey says. "This place is perfect for you."
"It's different," Leslie says. "Everything is different when you have to do things alone."
"I know lots of women who would be impressed with this place," she says with a smile.
"I don't know about that," he says and changes the subject. "C'mon, let's eat. Both of you must be hungry."
In the living room, Chee Keong puts his feet up on the sofa, wine glass in his hand watching EPL highlights on TV.
"I poured two glasses for the both of you," he says keeping his eyes on the screen. "Help yourselves OK?"
"Thanks," Leslie says and takes his wine into the kitchen. "Just need five more minutes then we can eat."
"Can I help?" Audrey asks. She's at the entrance of the kitchen – looks tanned, healthy, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail – but there's something in her eyes, Leslie notices. He missed it in the dim living room.
"I'm nearly done" Leslie says. He puts a pan full of water on the stove, lights the flame underneath. "Have you been swimming or something?"
"I run three times a week. And go to the gym on other days."
"I thought you hated working out?"
"At first, yes. But my colleagues asked me to join them," she says. "And I fell into a routine. I quite enjoy it now."
"What about Chee Keong?" he asks. He sprinkles a dash of salt and adds olive oil into the pan.
"Just look at him," Audrey says. "He is that way at home as well."
"Still getting through a pack every day?" he says. "He needs to cut down on cigarettes."
"And his drinking and late night suppers," she says. "I can go on and on."
"He should be taking better care of himself," Andrew says. "I read the other day about the rise in the number of younger stroke patients. Some of them still in their early 30s."
"I keep telling him exactly that," she says. "But you know how stubborn he gets."
Leslie smiles, watching the water as it begins to simmer. He adds the pasta into the pan watches it as it hits the water and uses a pair of tongs to turn it around.
"Look at you," Audrey says. "Like some pro."
"Trial and error," Leslie says. And then he opens his palm out facing her. "See this? Two weeks ago, there were bright red blisters because I wasn't careful with the oven."
And the next thing Leslie knows is her hand on his fingers, tracing the outline of his palm around the spot where he hurt himself. This is something, Leslie thinks. It isn't just nice to see you again. It goes on and goes on longer. He can hear the roar of water boiling in the pan. He doesn't know what this means or what he should do next. It's been a while since he has been held by anyone and he feels a certain comfort. What does this mean if it even means anything? He can't say for sure…except the pasta is getting overcooked and they'll go soft in a minute or two.
"I have to turn this down," Leslie whispers, releasing her grip on him and leaving her empty-handed.
"Sorry," she says, looking abandoned. She steps away and stands there in the empty little kitchen.
Leslie drains the water from the pasta into a colander, adds some pepper and a splash of olive oil. Then he pulls a strand of noodle, slurping it down.
"I guess this will do," he says.
"When we passed on this place," she says, looking away from him. "I thought of you."
"And you were right," he says.
"Took you long enough to make up your mind," she says.
"It was a tough decision," Leslie says. "But I really like it here."
He does, actually. Splendid view of the pool and the apartment facing his pads the noise from the main road. Nice and quiet. His next-door neighbours, Korean expats were friendly enough but kept to themselves. At the end of the day all he looked forward is lazing on the sofa listening to records. On the weekend he goes to the gym or for a run. Then he cleans up his place, does his laundry. He makes it a point to have dinner with his parents once or twice every month. At times it felt like surrender – is this all the life he is going to have? He heard of elderly folk living alone, dying alone, found by the helper who cleaned the place every week or the distant relative who visited now and then. Kinds of things, Leslie turns over his head when he's alone in his apartment. Except he's not about to tell Audrey such things.
Leslie opens the oven, feels the heat rushing into his face.
"It smells good," Chee Keong says walking into the kitchen and heads straight for the fridge. Do you need me to do anything?"
"I'm good, thanks," Leslie says.
"More wine," Chee Keong asks. "Anyone?"
"Maybe later," Leslie says.
Audrey shakes her head, turns and goes to the living room.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" asks Chee Keong keeping his voice down. "I'm dying for one right now."
Leslie wants to say, no because this is my house, my rules. Smoking in this shiny new place feels like violation. Instead he opens a little drawer and takes out the ashtray for Chee Keong.
"Thanks," Chee Keong says, opening a window. He pulls a half-empty pack out of his pocket, lights one up.
"You, my friend," Chee Keong says. "Don't know how lucky you are."
"What are you talking about?" Leslie asks.
"All the freedom and the single life," Chee Keong says. "You can do whatever you feel like doing."
"You know what they say about the grass on the other side?" Leslie says.
"Don't pretend," Chee Keong says. "I know what the view looks like by the pool on weekends."
Leslie would be lying if he denied it. The usual moms and their kids with their pink towels and scatter of toys and clothes. Some of them look nice enough having zipped their bodies back to shape. They wear sexy bikinis and flaunt their trampoline tight tummies, walking around as if their kids or husbands didn't exist. Which is something Leslie finds scary.
"All you need now is some girl to take care of you," Chee Keong says.
"I can take care of myself."
"You know what I mean."
He's talking about Cheryl, Leslie's what? – girlfriend seems too vague and too soon all at once. They've been together for slightly more than three months? Cheryl who is now in Bali, surfing with a group of her friends. Leslie can't surf or swim and has never owned a pair of board shorts in his life. He can never picture himself on a beach with her, longboard in tow, trying to catch a gnarly wave. He never really got along with any of her friends and Audrey never liked her in the first place. Too young, too talkative, too much of a millennial.
"I don't want to go into it," Leslie says.
Women and their mysteries, Leslie thinks. They come and go as they please. Put their head on your shoulder or press their bodies against yours and just leave without saying anything. Or maybe they're telling everybody else…
"OK, OK," Chee Keong says, stubbing the cigarette out. "Can we eat already?"
"Of course," Leslie says and takes the stew into the living room.
"Oh my," says Audrey, "this looks just fantastic."
"I agree," Chee Keong says.
"Hang on," Leslie says before going back into the kitchen. "We can't forget the pasta."
Soon enough everything seems all right. It's not just Leslie, but everyone feels it. Outside, light drizzle spots the windows but inside there is soft music in the background, food and conversation.
"So," Leslie says, "are you both going away at the end of the year?"
"We don't know," Audrey says. "I'd always wanted to go to Eastern Europe."
"That's nice actually," Leslie says. "Prague, Budapest and Vienna."
"I just love those Christmas markets," Audrey says.
"I don't know," Chee Keong says. "I want to go someplace where there's no Santa Claus or carols and all that crap."
"It's going to be cold," Leslie says.
"Another thing I can't stand," Chee Keong says. "Just the thought turns me off. Besides Christmas is just another scam to make you spend money."
"You spend money on that car all the time," Audrey says.
That shuts him up. He turns away from her and stares out the window. Then he pinches the stem of his wine glass making little circles on the table before picking it up and downing everything in a single take. Leslie goes to refill his glass but not before glancing at Audrey as if to seek her approval. But she is only staring into her plate. Leslie feels this night slipping away and turning into something else. Maybe it was supposed to be this way. He knows there is nothing he can do about the situation. That much, he knows.
The three of them were friends since their university days. Being with them was a good thing because Leslie never felt like a third wheel. He'd chat about soccer and politics with Chee Keong or talking about what movie to watch with Audrey. When they first got their flat, Leslie came over on the weekends just to hang out. But over the years, Leslie felt more and more like a man going away, looking out the window of a moving train and seeing faces of his friends slip away. With married people you are always left outside even if you are close to them. Those mysterious closed houses of marriages…
He comes back with refills and they talk about the latest Christopher Nolan movie, gossip and office politics. Just like that everything seems right once again. In a world, which appears to be turning faster and faster leaving people alone, they have managed to hold on to each other all these years. That's probably worth something.
"Seconds, anyone?" Leslie says.
"I'm full," Audrey says.
Chee Keong, nods passes his plate over and Leslie scoops more beef and gravy.
"Do you still play soccer with the guys?" Leslie asks.
"Not as much as before," Chee Keong says. "And you?"
"Not anymore," Leslie says. "Busy at work."
"You're always busy," Chee Keong says. "I was surprised about tonight."
"I always make it a point to make time for you both," Leslie says, meaning every word. Having them around, making dinner for them and hearing voices in his apartment just feels nice. His life may not be what he had imagined but everything has worked out for him, more or less. He does not have to worry about money. He has close friends and sometimes he has Cheryl, too. This apartment, cozy and new makes everything seem possible.
The party debris, glasses, plates and empty bottles, the wineglass with Audrey's lipstick on the rim, Leslie gathers. He takes everything to the kitchen. Chee Keong is snoring on the sofa with the TV going. It all looks kind of a mess, Leslie feels. Except a little mess is can be good when it takes away some of the fresh shine of the apartment. It makes it seem like somebody actually lives there now. Audrey had run a damp cloth over the dining table and is now leaning against the kitchen top and pours the last of the red wine into a new glass, a solid half glass.
"Do you remember that time at East Coast?" Audrey says. "When you caught that fish?"
Back in university they went fishing at East Coast Park, just for fun. Camped by the beach, slept under the stars as a slow wind blew all night. The next morning Leslie hooked a red garoupa and people on bicycles or midway through a run actually stopped and watched.
"Do you remember?" she says.
Leslie lets the water run into the sink, pauses and looks at her. After barely thinking about it all these years, it comes back to him.
"That was ages ago," he says.
"Before things got complicated," she says.
"I don't understand," he says. "What kind of complications?"
She tells him about it without any hesitation in her voice. Just puts it plainly about subtle signs and ample warnings that were always there but she could never see. Her voice turns small. Leslie can feel her confusion, finds himself getting confused.
"Since when," he says.
"I don't know," she says. "Does it even matter?"
Leslie can tell from her voice, that dark absolute certainty. It descends over, pulls the two of them into its orbit.
"I don't know what to do anymore?" she says
"Have you seen anyone?" he says.
"We've been going for the past year," she says. "Every Friday we sit in a warmly lit room with a stranger trying to talk things out. By the time we're done, he's too tired to drive us home and my eyes are swollen from crying."
"You know what," Audrey says. "Other people have it far worse—I've heard stories about things gone too far in the office. Others involve close friends. People just find their escape in places you cannot imagine. I've heard things even I can't believe. Listening to all this, I don't know what to feel. These stories aren't a scale by which I place myself to measure my situation. In the end my satisfaction lies in the knowledge of others in the same boat as me."
At this point she curls her hands into fists and says, "Sorry if I spoilt everything."
"What are you going to do?" he says.
"I don't know," she says and looks up at him. "Can I do anything? I don't know."
Leslie can see that she is telling the truth. Even if they manage to work things out, the scabs will keep coming off. Years from now. That's for sure. For a moment he thinks what it feels like to be in her shoes, the hopelessness of her situation.
Audrey shrugs and goes to the dining table. She sips her wine, looking off into the corner. Leslie follows but stops at the edge of the kitchen. They consider the quiet around them, the almost eleven-thirty quiet.
"I remember now," Leslie says.
"That day at East Coast when I caught that fish."
"That was some catch," Audrey says.
"I let it back into the water," Leslie says.
"You don't remember?"
"No I don't."
"It didn't even put up a fight. I couldn't bring myself to do it," Leslie says.
"Your heart is soft," she says. "Everybody thinks you're too nice."
"You're right," he says. "That actually bothers me. It also bothers me that I go to bed alone, every night almost. So what if I own this place? The truth is these days all I keep thinking about are children. Nothing but running, screaming children I'll never get to raise. It drives me crazy."
"I know that feeling," Audrey says in a whisper.
He goes and sits next to her, listening to the wind running through the trees outside. She smells of perfume and wine. And something happens here, a sudden burst of feeling because the Audrey from his past falls away, replaced by something beyond his control. Leslie feels it. He wonders how much of this night they will remember when they're old. Maybe in flashes and pictures, just maybe if they are both lucky. But right now he must make a decision about what to make of her hand resting on his lap, open.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022