Point of Desperation
By Genevieve Wong
She had agreed to marriage because she was tired of crying with self-pity at weddings and pretending that they were tears of joy. Because she was tired of relatives reluctantly giving her hongbao during Chinese New Year, especially when it was the recession, and when she was earning more than their retirees' annuity funds. Because she was tired of impulsively signing up for singles events and escaping from them midway to have coffee with her girlfriends.
All lousy reasons to get married, she ruminated, as she arched an eyebrow from reading her National Geographic magazine at the bumbling figure of Charles as he got his usual blue striped draw-string pyjama pants out from the cupboard. When they first started dating, she had been bored to death, and had shot many desperate prayers for their conversations to get better as they got to know each other. They were like people from two different planets, but wasn't that the way things were meant to be? Yin and Yang. Venus and Mars. He was a nice person, straight-forward, patient. He was a Bible-believing, Charismatic-movement-endorsing Christian. He stayed in landed property. He wouldn't break her heart. He loved her, and it wasn't out of rebound, like how her first relationship had been based on. "He's such an honest guy," people would whisper to her, when he blurted out that they had met at a singles event or that his "Engrish wasn't that good, but it has improved". "Honest" seemed to her a polite way of saying that the boy had the transparency and Bambi innocence of a three-year-old, with a life so serene that its highlights consisted of watching Chinese swordfighting dramas and joining the church's Prayer Ministry.
At first, she had attempted to single-handedly up his handicapped cultural capital by chattering about the latest plays in town or going on about a different poet or author each week, starting with her favourite Seamus Heaney and working her way across the international English canon to Kazuo Ishiguro and Catherine Lim. But after several instances of him pausing and staring at her in genuine confusion, she began alternatively trying creative ways to escape from spending prolonged periods of time with him and entertaining herself by using him as her muse for an imagined anthropological thesis, tentatively titled Some People Are Born Uninteresting. But still, despite all her rants and whines and her continual promises to herself to stop leading him on, she continued to go out with him date after date, trying to convince herself that she was too fussy and that it would get better soon. Before she had realised it, they had clocked enough time to be at the "steady and ready to settle down" state. He had gone down on one knee in the middle of the Botanical Gardens and mumbled something about his father offering to give them a condominium unit. Charles didn't know it, but it was really the timing of the proposal rather than the state of their relationship that drove the soft "yes" with a crooked smile from her. The week before, she had found out, quite accidently from an old acquaintance that she had bumped into at Takashimaya, that her first and only boyfriend before Charles, an Indian-Chinese boy called Yong, had gotten married. Perhaps her heart had been numbed by shock, even if it had been eight years since she and Yong had been a couple. Or perhaps agreeing to marriage was just a rash act committed at a dumb point of weak desperation. She had been on the cusp of being beyond the "right marriageable age" after all.
As she looked at him nervously kneeling in front of her, his round face red and drenched in sweat, with an oversized stuffed pig sitting on the backpack next to him on one side and both hands holding a thick yellow gold band that had once belonged to his Ah Ma, her mind went back to the results of her Facebook snoop of Yong's fairytale wedding photos. A ring was better than no ring. After a few moments of stunned silence, Charles had promptly burst into thankful tears and hugged her and the pig tightly before repeating over and over again that he had been so nervous.
"I guess he's like white rice. Boring but stable. Barring frying and sauce, white rice is... bland but comforting, I guess. Perhaps he's good for me." She had told her close group of friends from her secondary school days. They had nodded sympathetically at that. They knew about the trials that Denise had waded through. In the first year of junior college, she had gone to a gynaecologist for her painful pre-menstrual cramps and had found out that she had fibroids and endometriosis. Both, she had found out through Google, might lead to infertility. Deciding that she needed to find a man who would love her unconditionally or not marry at all, she had decided to be a Shrew, to be a Katherine to anyone who wanted to court her, till they saw past her shell and fell in love with her real, sweet nature. The experiment worked too well, guys generally ignored her and then, in self-defence, she declared that dating was a pain. Throwing herself into first her studies, then her work had been a good escape from the pain as well as singleness, but when she turned 25, she realised that she needed to take action. Attending singles events were fun for her because she loved talking and used it to test her market value. It also provided conversation fodder for friends and family, with whom Denise would over-analyse each date with.
With Denise's amusing anecdotes, her friends had taken it upon themselves to brand Charles with various monikers that they used in their mirth, while half-wondering if they needed to down her stories with a large helping of salt. Did he really sing London Bridge is falling down after Denise had waxed lyrical about the English capital as her favourite holiday destination? They wondered incredulously, in between Denise's animated comic sketches of The Boring One, or Mr. Stable White Rice Guy. "Hey, do you know what I know about London?" he had supposedly said on that classic occasion, before launching into the nursery rhyme, with nary a sense of irony or embarrassment.
He was a nice guy; that fact was undeniable. He was neither bad-tempered nor rude nor impatient. Denise felt a pang of – was it regret? – as she looked at Charles' sleeping figure. It had been four years since their wedding, but still she wondered frequently if it had been the right thing to do. She played with her wedding band. Bumping into Yong and his wife in town once while she was with Charles had felt good. Using the phrase "my husband" had been grand. But was that all she wanted? On days when Charles seemed exceptionally and infuriatingly incapable of having a decent conversation with, she missed Yong's easy humour and glib tongue. Charles had hardly said anything to her after asking her about the shirt. Knowing him, he wouldn't dare push the topic. Why had she married him? Insipid, weak man. There was a schism of difference between them. She was a go-getter, ambitious, headstrong. He was a doormat. The four years of matrimony had passed like their four years of dating. She barked, he obeyed. She whined, he caved. The image of Tim's shirt, hanging from their bookcase in the hall, entered her head. She had spilled coffee on it accidently during Tuesday's meeting and had offered to send it for dry-cleaning. Tim had shrugged it off initially, then had surprised her by handing her a paper bag with the rumpled shirt in it as she was heading out for lunch. Stingy ang moh, she thought as she smiled graciously and took it from him.
Was that jealousy that Charles had in his eyes when he asked her about the shirt? She loved to see him worked up, as it happened so rarely. She smiled at the last trick she tried, not going for his Vice-principal's son's wedding dinner. "You can go," she had said, settling down in front of the television in her oversized Singapore Marathon T-shirt and shorts as he was re-adjusting his tie in front of the mirror. "I want to watch my Korean show."
"Huh?" he had protested. That was the only word Charles had to express himself. "Huh?" in a loud boom meant he couldn't hear properly or didn't understand. "Huh?" with a frown meant he was angry. "Huh?" in a soft quizzical tone meant he was feeling insecure. The latter was usually accompanied with him fiddling with his backpack straps. Then, seeing that Denise had no intention of giving any more of her time to him, he strode out of the door, emitting a strange glottal grunt on the way.
An affair would be out of the question though, Denise mused, suppressing the immediate instinct to repent that sinful thought. Her Christian sensibilities would not allow it, and her girlfriends and parents would never let it go. It would be too troublesome, spiritually, emotionally and socially. Though if she did, an ang moh like Tim would be ideal. Better bang for the buck, so to speak. She wasn't sure if she liked the idea of telling Tim about her endometriosis, though. Weakness of any kind was not favoured in the office. This was one thing that she loved about being married to Charles. His libido was so low she didn't have to worry about sex too much, which was excruciatingly painful for her. Even when she had told him she might not be able to have kids shortly after they were engaged, he had just said they could get a dog instead. Denise couldn't stop a slight smile at this simplicity. Her frequent cramps, which lasted 2 weeks before her period, meant that they only had a 1-week window period per month to sleep together with less chances of her rolling around in pain after that. If he remembered, he would initiate sex on the Saturday of that week. If not, they simply continued sleeping side by side, like siblings, almost. She never, ever, made the first move.
Charles stirred just then. "Emily.." he muttered. Denise sat up and went closer to him. "Emily..." it was a soft whisper, imploring, tender. Family? Did he say family? Was he dreaming about starting a family in his sleep? Or was it another woman? Was it? Was it? He wouldn't dare! There was only one way to find out. Denise sprang up from bed like a statue brought to life and driven by a force more powerful than any pre-conceived illusions of respecting her husband's privacy, dug through his backpack vigorously, searching for his phone amid the packets of tissue paper, umbrella, box of toothpicks, raincoat and other paraphernalia that Charles carried around for imagined emergencies. That was what people had told her to do. When you suspect your man is straying, check his phone immediately. She pulled out his phone which had been wedged at the corner of his bag with a polyclinic receipt. She remembered that he had said something about blood in his stools recently. The message inbox was mostly filled with orders from her about various chores she wanted him to do while she was at work. Did the silly man keep everything? She went through his Sent box and found what she was looking for.
"Hi emily. Ok, see u at 12 tml at taka mac's then." The number had not been saved in his phone. Denise took a picture of the incriminating message using her phone and copied the number on a piece of paper.
The air in the fast-food restaurant stank of stale oil. Denise scanned the faces before spotting the back of a familiar checked shirt. The girl opposite him was what she had imagined an Emily to be. Doe-eyed, long straight hair. The quintessential Singaporean femme fatale. They looked as if they were deep in conversation, Charles hunched over the table, Emily leaning forward, nodding. Denise's stomach lurched. Men. They simply couldn't be trusted. A part of her felt let down. Another felt strangely relieved, as if her cynicism about not being able to find someone to love her had been validated. She had been sure no man would be as tolerant to her as Charles had been. Her old JC self started to emerge. Who would want you when you can't even have sex properly? When you're infertile? The corporate suit she had on contrasted with the little-girl feelings she had. You loser. Can't even hold a man down. The corporate woman side came back to force. You need to confront her! You are highly paid, highly educated, rich, smart, pretty. Hold your head up high and march. March!
She found herself standing in front of a gaping Charles, whose spectacles had slipped so far off his nose they hung crookedly in a crazy angle. Emily's saucer-round eyes looked like they were about to burst into tears.
Charles' eyes darted nervously between the slip of a girl opposite him and the looming figure of his wife in her power suit, arms folded.
"Hey, hi... erm."
The girl opposite him looked up. The fabled Emily. Her kohl-lined eyes made her look like an undernourished panda. She shifted awkwardly and twirled a lock of blond-streaked hair around her finger. Denise noted her lithe body, clad in the black skinny jeans and grey baggy top ensemble that teenage girls favoured, and although her breathing was already shallow from anger and adrenalin, she sucked her tummy in. Charles moved to make a space beside him.
"Want to sit?" Bambi-eyed innocence.
She glared at him and sat down before fixating her eyes on the girl. The silence juxtaposed with the blaring pop music and happy colour theme of the restaurant. Charles looked at the ceiling, as though he was in a crowded lift and could only stare at the floor numbers displayed above the door.
"Hi, err... I'm Emily. I'm Mr. Tan's student," the girl said abruptly.
"Oh, really? And why are you meeting Mr. Tan during the holidays? What's so important?" Denise was surprised at how strained her voice was.
To Denise's horror, Emily's eyes started to well up.
"I'm pregnant. I don't know what to do."
Denise frowned and stared at Charles in astonished disgust. Charles looked as if he wanted to hide under the table. He shifted uncomfortably, looking as if he was trying hard to will his synapses to snap together and connect his brain to his mouth.
"Oh.. oh, I mean, no lah, Mrs. Tan. It's not Mr. Tan's! He wouldn't...I mean, I wouldn't..." Emily pursed her lips together and appeared deep in thought.
Denise frowned. Was it just a simple counselling case then? Charles' students had all kinds of mishaps, which Charles usually tried valiantly to help. Twice he had gone to the police station to vouch for students who were involved in gang fights, and once, he had gone to the hospital to help when a student's mother could not pay the medical bills. She looked at Charles again, waiting for his defence.
"Huh? Erm, I..." His synapses were obviously failing him.
Emily had the same exasperation on her face as Denise. "Eh, Mr. Tan, you need to speak up leh. Or else Mrs. Tan will never know the truth."
"Excuse me? The truth?" It felt like she was in a whodunit movie.
"Haiyah. I just tell you lah. I always like to talk to Mr. Tan, because he's so cute, you know we all call him Ninja Turtle in school? And like, he will listen lor, not like some of the other tutors. So now that I kena pregnant, I just want to talk to him and find out what he thinks I should do. I guess, like. Maybe a married man will understand? Coz he say before like, he want to have kids but his wife don't want. So... I mean, if he wants, he can take my baby...."
Denise blinked. Emily bobbed her head, looking like a demented, if innocent, doll. "If Mr. Tan wants your baby, he can have it," she said, finally, not knowing where the words were coming from. "I don't care. My lunch time is up." The last part wasn't entirely true – she had taken the day off to spy on Charles – but she just needed some fresh air.
As she opened the big glass doors of the restaurant, she heard footsteps behind her. Charles gripped on her elbow with assured familiarity, his backpack uncharacteristically slung on one forearm like a handbag. He was panting, a corner of his shirt hung out from under his belly. She looked at him, not knowing whether to feel angry or betrayed by the overgrown schoolboy in front of her. It was a vulnerable moment. He swallowed.
"Erm, Denise ah, can we talk? Please?"
She wanted to give a curt "What's there to talk about?" but instead, she nodded mutely. She half-wanted to collapse into his arms and cry.
He kept pace next to her and flailed him arms about. "I'm innocent! Really! It's just that..."
She closed her eyes. Swallowed once. "You really want to have a child?" Denise muttered. Her chest heaved up and down, like one needing air.
"That too, but you said you can't and you're always in pain and I just want to help Emily and I.. haiyah. I don't know lah. Ma keeps asking me. It's so..." He stopped himself, and looked regretful. Denise hated it when his mother featured in any conversation.
Denise stopped walking, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"You know what," she said with finality. The words were really streaming in from a parallel mouth, another brain. "Let's just call it off. Let's...well, let's live separately." What was she saying? She bit her lower lip and silently cursed her Sunday School values for not allowing her to say 'divorce' outright. Charles gaped at her.
"You... you... you heard what I said. I have enough. I cannot stand you. I cannot stand you. I cannot stand you!! You're boring! We have nothing in common. I've told you this so many times but you still keep coming back... like... like a mosquito... a pest! You're irritating. You're so frustrating! I hate our lives together! I hate looking at you! I hate introducing you to my friends! I hate sleeping with you! I hate it! And even if I can have kids, I never ever want to have your kids! Never! Not even if they're adopted from China or Africa or Cambodia! So if you really want a baby, you can have hers! Or hers! Or hers!" It had all come out like a single-stringed utterance, and ended with her pointing to random women walking by.
She must have looked like a deranged person, with her hair flying around her face. Her face felt hot, he stood there staring at her. Had he understood? Every time they had had these one-sided fights – as all their fights were – he would stand stock-still, as though shell-shocked at first, before infuriatingly recovering and saying something so benign that it made Denise angrier and more frustrated in wondering what she had been thinking by marrying a complete moron. "So, do you want to have dinner now?" he had said once, after she had cried and lambasted him for humiliating her and for being weak and unmanly after he had let his mother come over to convince her to have more frequent sex with him.
He looked like he had something fighting to be heard from the back of his fat throat now. She couldn't wait for the spark of genius. She just needed to go. Denise walked away hurriedly, glancing at her watch as though she was late for a meeting. Charles watched her retreating figure. He had once chased Denise down the length of Orchard Road and throughout the length of an MRT train, only to have her take flight in a taxi at Eunos Station. But not now. He stood there, rooted to the ground, arms by his side, like a man finally tired out by life.
Flashbacks of random points of their relationship flashed through Denise's mind, like the fabled last seconds of a man's life. Her strides broke into a run, though she did not know where she was going, or why.
Behind her, Emily had slipped her arm around Charles and nestled her small hand in his back pocket. She rested her head on his chest and guided his hand to her swelling belly. Charles kissed her head lightly and fingered her long hair thoughtfully, planning.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011