By Cyril Wong
The morning after Serene killed her husband, she did not know what to do. And to curb her near-hysteria, she stumbled into a nearby supermarket and pretended to browse through the meat section in a desperate attempt to distract herself, trying to keep her mind from flying by weighing it down with the various prices of ham. Only last week, she had been slightly irritated by how much they had gone up over the years.
It was the weekend and Jeff was here too in one of the aisles buying toiletries on his wife’s instructions. There was no longer any bottles of shampoo at home and she had called him to buy more of the same brand they always used. Jeff was wondering when was the first time he stopped liking the smell of his wife’s hair when he saw Serene bending over the glass counter to look at some raw meat.
He only saw her profile. But Jeff recognised her straight away. She had been the prettiest school councillor at the Junior College where they both studied. They had been in the same class, but they never had a chance to really talk. There were always all these classmates between them, some of whom she had been a lot closer to and whom inadvertently prevented the two of them from getting close at all. He wondered if she still remembered him now. He had forgotten about her upon entering National Service and going to pursue his Mass Communications degree in Australia, until now. He remembered believing she had never truly wanted to talk to him anyway. He had not been as funny as the rest, or as good-looking, for that matter.
She looked up and saw him too. At first, she did not recognise him. But then she found him vaguely familiar, and started to walk towards him. Jeff realised he had not had anything interesting to say to her when they were in school, let alone now. He had always been afraid she would think less of him than she did of the other guys for his own lack of a memorable personality. All his other classmates had been personalities. They could crack a joke at which everyone else in the room would laugh. He was just the quiet, bespectacled geek who was friendly and who nodded at anything they had to say, laughing at all the appropriate places, but really having nothing of any interest to contribute in any event of a conversation. Also, he was the only one in the class who was not actively involved in some sports group or a school councillor. The reason he gave for not taking part in any of these activities was that he needed the time to study. A safe and boring reason. It was embarrassing when the others got about the same grades as he did at the end of the year.
Then Jeff noticed there was something very wrong with Serene, the way she was breathing so heavily, and how she looked like she was on the brink of crying. He decided he would say something first, “Hi, Serene. Long time no see. I’m Jeff, just in case (insert nervous laughter here) you have forgotten my name.”
“Please - please help me, Jeff. I killed my husband. He’s lying on the floor in the kitchen and I - I don’t know, don’t know what to do, what to -” she suddenly stopped and sobs began pushing their way out of her body, tears springing free from the corners of her eyes. She grabbed hold of both his arms and started to tremble. For a brief second, he liked how her fingernails dug into his skin, the way a wisp of hair got stuck to her moist, upper lip.
He freed himself from her grip and gripped her hands tightly with his own. To think he had been here to buy shampoo for his wife and then to end up holding the hands of a girl he used to have a minor crush, trying to stop her from sobbing, from trembling, and from breathing so hard. And she killed her husband. There must have been an accident or something. Why would she be telling him this if it had not been an accident? “Don’t worry. I’ll help you. Don’t worry. Let me help you,” he reassured her. “Did you drive here?”
She shook her head. And kept looking around as if finally aware she was making quite a scene, and wondering perhaps if anyone had heard what she had said. Her hands were very warm and felt good in his hands. His wife did not like to hold his hands anymore. They were only married for a year, and already they were having less sex than before. Even when they kissed goodbye every morning, or good night before they slept, it always felt like a formality, a matter of courtesy. He did not know what had happened to turn her into the pragmatic, no-nonsense woman that she eventually became. To her, any form of physical intimacy was like an aspect of disorder and messiness she would rather not deal with, but did, as if in due respect to the actuality of their marriage, their sharing of the same bed. She would rather work at her accounts at the computer, or finish up her latest self-improvement book, than simply take the time to lie next to him and think about nothing, other than the fact of his presence.
“Let me drive you home then, okay? Where do you live?” She shook her head and replied, “I live just around the corner.” And oddly enough, she started to regain a sense of calm. She wiped her eyes with a cursory swipe of her hand, which she withdrew from Jeff’s hand, and led him by her other hand out of the supermarket. Jeff had not even bought the shampoo yet.
Jeff wondered how ridiculous they must look, walking out of the supermarket like this. It seemed like he was the one in some kind of trouble and she was the one leading him out of it by the hand. And she was right. Her flat was only a few minutes walk away. She led him like that all the way to the lift.
As the lift went up, she kept holding on tightly to his hand, and struggled again not to cry. He had to soothe her, “Don’t worry, we will find a way to fix this.” She nodded. Another tear ran down her cheek. The hair was still at her lip.
She looked like she had not aged at all over the years. He remembered how great she looked when she won second place for the prom-queen competition. He recalled too that it had been her best friend from another class who had won, and how she had looked slightly annoyed at not winning. But she quickly hid her irritation when she had to laugh at her classmates’ jokes again, or hug her best friend by way of congratulation.
She brought him down a flight a stairs and into her flat at the end of a long corridor. The living room was tastefully furnished with pieces that looked like they came from Ikea. “So where is your husband?” he asked. And already he began to wonder what he must be like. Probably very handsome, with good skin and a fit body. Not like him: almost frail and possessing a boring, slightly asymmetrical face.
She brought him to the kitchen, where she let go of his hand to point at the body on the floor. This time, when she saw the body again, she burst out like she could not before in the supermarket. He wanted to hug her but she was too busy holding her face in her hands, as if to keep it from falling off.
Jeff went to the body and saw he was, indeed, handsome, except a little pale and his mouth was hanging open on its hinges. His eyes were shut. Jeff thought about what it would have been like to pour himself into the body on the floor, and then to wake up as this guy with his tanned skin, muscled body, and his broad mouth. While they both stood there before the dead husband, he realised there was a smell in the air, a combination of alcohol and gas, especially gas. Serene explained, after calming down again to the point where her sentences did not break up so erratically.
“We had a big fight yesterday. I told him I did not love him anymore, that I wanted a divorce. He called me a slut and said I flirted with other men.” Here, Serene caught her breath, and looked like she was to embark on another bout of crying, but got back her composure, and went on. “The fight got real bad, and he left. He came back when I was sleeping. He was very drunk. Then he went to the kitchen to get something, and just ended up sleeping on the floor. I went to see why he was taking so long and there he was, just sleeping on the floor. And - and I don’t know what came over me. I went to lock all the windows in the kitchen and just turned on the gas. Then I went out and closed the kitchen door. I even - I even got a piece of cloth and shoved it under the door so the gas wouldn’t escape.”
She did not cry anymore, and walked out of the kitchen to plonk down on the sofa in the living room, as if the sudden burst of speech had exhausted her. Jeff watched her as she sat there, then turned back to look at the body. He squatted down to feel for his pulse. The body had such thick arms wrapped in stark, protruding veins. There was no pulse. He was not breathing. He stood back up again. Serene’s voice returned behind him, “When I woke up, I went to the kitchen. And I thought I had dreamt the whole thing, until I saw the cloth under the door, and realised what I had done. I opened the door and there he was, on the floor, and all that gas. I opened the windows and I did not know gas could smell like that, could fill up a whole room like that. And I kept asking him to wake up, wake up. When he didn’t, I had to get out, I wanted to go to the police-post downstairs. Do you know the police-post is only downstairs?”
At this point she laughed suddenly. He turned around, startled. It was discomfiting watching someone laugh like that, then cry again, then do both simultaneously. Soon, she stopped and became terribly calm, her eyes red now and her cheeks gleaming wet. He left the body behind and walked to the sofa where she was. Several thoughts collided with each other in his brain at once: he could become implicated if this leaked out, he could go to jail; she looked so vulnerable sitting there, trying to numb herself from what she had done; she must have suffered from a moment of insanity, she was regretting it now.
“How long were you two married?” he asked, sitting down on the sofa beside her. What kind of question was that? But Jeff did not know what else to say at this point. But maybe, in some way, it was also because he wanted to compare her marriage to his own, to indulge in the fact that both marriages looked like they were not working out. And in Serene’s case, brought finally to a halt.
She looked up at Jeff with a dazed look mixed in with a little puzzlement at the question. But she answered anyway. “Three. Three years.” Jeff merely nodded. Then he saw her breathing pick up speed. She was going to bawl again, and enter another stage of panic. He had to do something. “We can clear up this mess, and you won’t get into any trouble at all.”
She looked gratefully at him. “I didn’t mean to kill him you know. I don’t know why I did it. It just felt so good closing the window, stuffing the cloth under the door. It’s like I wanted to get back at him for something. And that need was so strong. I was so tired that night. So tired of him, so tired of his fucking insults, how he never really cared about me, only about how I made him look, made him look to his friends, his parents.”
“So you were seeing other men.”
“Technically, I did not do anything. I just went out with them on dates. I didn’t fuck them or anything.”
“But didn’t you two love each other?” This felt lame. But Jeff asked it anyway. He would ask anything to keep her talking.
“Yah. Wait, no. I don’t think we really did.”
“Then why did you two get married? And for three years?” He walked over to her and sat down on the couch beside her. Part of him stood outside this whole situation and surveyed the scene: a woman talking to a man about her marriage, her husband dead in the kitchen, a whiff of gas like the dead man’s ghost still hovering in the room.
Jeff considered his own marriage to his wife. He remembered how they met at the university they went to, when they even attended the same courses; how they could not stop holding hands, or stealing kisses in the corridors where the seminar rooms were. He had been so stunned when she said she liked him at first. No one had ever done that for him before. No one had liked him like that before. That was the main reason why he reciprocated, and returned her feelings. What happened to all that? Was it her job that changed everything? Did she change because she was tired of being bored by him, of being married to him? Was she perhaps even seeing somebody else? Somebody attractive like Serene’s husband on the floor?
Serene went on, “He was so romantic before. I don’t know what happened. He kept saying how pretty I was, what a perfect couple we made. Then when we got married, we started hating each other. I don’t know how it started. But I think we realised our relationship was based a lot on physical attraction. But we stuck with it, thinking there was more to it than that, that we really really loved each other.” It was odd how she was becoming calm in the process of speaking. So matter of fact. She was no longer trembling or verging on a panic. Her hands closed and open on her lap.
“And then we just went on like that, stubbornly. He kept saying he loved me. And I let him kid himself. I let myself believe it. And we were so good together. Everyone said so, you know? Even his parents and my parents love each other. Then I met these few guys from my workplace. I dated them, and he found out. He caught me lying about working late, when I was out with this colleague. He was at the same restaurant with his own friends when he saw me. He knew who he was and how intimate I acted with him in the restaurant and called him a fat shit. Then we couldn’t stop arguing.” She fell silent. She closed her eyes and leaned on Jeff’s shoulder. Jeff was surprised, but started stroking her back slowly and gently. “It’s okay,” he said, although she was not crying or anything. She was just lying on him, breathing evenly.
Suddenly, Jeff wanted everything to stop. He thought about his wife, who always woke up before him and who was probably now busying herself at home with paperwork she had brought back from her office; not worrying at all about why he was spending so much time at the supermarket, and caring only if he had bought the shampoo she had told him to buy. He remembered how she had been when asking him about the shampoo; how she had looked and sounded as if she was near the edge of impatience, yet still staying within the bounds of token, marital cordiality.
After this, he would still have to return to their three room flat, their separate and equally banal jobs. An earlier state of monotony before this moment, before now, was beginning to reopen up like a hole under his feet, ready to suck him back in. When would something like this ever happen again? He reached for Serene’s hand.
“What now?” she asked, in a low, quiet voice, as if she had attained a kind of acceptance about something.