By O Thiam Chin
Back in 1997, when Liang was unsure what he wanted from his marriage he was a new father with a six-month old son he was invited to a Chinese New Year's gathering by a stranger. He was thirty-five years old, and the stranger was someone he had chatted with on and off for two weeks on the IRC. It was going to be held on the second day of the New Year, organised by the stranger's friend. Liang had asked the guy what he should bring if he was going. Nothing, just come, don't need to bring anything, there should be sufficient food, the guy had said. After ending the call, Liang sat and thought hard about his decision whether to go. He could still back out, if he wanted to, no harm done. It was the first gathering of this nature for him, and he didn't know what he should do, how he ought to react, what he should wear, what kind of things people would ask. The questions and doubts multiplied in his mind, and in the end, he left them unanswered. He would just go for the gathering, and that was that.
He arrived on time, and brought along a Tupperware of chicken curry, something he had prepared that morning. It was something he had learnt from his wife, one that was easy enough to make. The stranger at the door introduced himself as the person Liang had been chatting with, and led him to the host, the owner of the apartment where the gathering was held. He held out his curry to the host, who added it to the spread of food that had filled out every inch of space on the long wooden table. Liang noticed that there were already three types of curry laid out. Music was playing at a low-volume, soft in the background. Tight clusters of men stood near the table, holding plates of food, glancing around the room. He took sips from a can of Carlsberg and stayed in a corner of the spacious living room, watching, listening to random drifts of conversation.
As he was popping his third can of beer he was already feeling warm and light-headed the host came up to him and asked whether he was enjoying himself, or was keen to know any of the guys, he could introduce them to him. Yes, it's great, Liang said, waving the can of beer, uncertain how he should respond to the other question.
Don't be shy, the host said, putting his hand on Liang's shoulder, massaging it. I'm sure there is someone you like, there are so many guys here, surely there is one that is your type, he added, smiling a benevolent, knowing smile. Liang looked at the host, and then at the beer he was holding. He could feel the rush of blood coursing from his fingers to his face, stretching the limits of his skin, radiating heat. The host said something more, and moved on to another guy he had spotted across the room. Liang drank from the can of beer, long and unbroken, until it was empty, and headed for the kitchen, looking for a trash bin to throw the empty can. His movements, though heavy and languid, were stiff and controlled, as if he were wary of drawing unwanted attention to himself. He needed to go soon, or he would be irreparably drunk. Looking up from his watch, he saw a man standing at the entrance to the kitchen. Lean and tanned, with a buzz haircut, wearing a yellow T-shirt and a pair of dark jeans. In his hands, he was carrying several empty paper plates and cups, trying to keep them from toppling, unaware that some gravy had stained the front of his shirt. Liang went up to help him, taking some of the plates from him. The man smiled and thanked him, and for the first time that evening, Liang felt caught up in something he was helpless to avoid, and to which he found himself hurling into, unthinkingly.
They talked for a while, treading on easy topics that required only the briefest of answers. Mostly they looked at each other, smiled and asked simple questions. Even as he was preparing what to ask next, trying to be two steps ahead of the conversation, Liang could feel something opening up in him, a growing desire that seemed pure and savage and physical, gnawing near his heart, pounding alongside it, two beats at a time. In his guts, a deep, raw hunger was eating him inside out. He wasn't sure whether he could take a step or move any part of his body; he wasn't sure what he would do; everything seemed, at that moment, possible and real, fraught with unseen dangers.
The man took the lead, and they entered the packed living room, looking for a quiet corner where they could resume their chat. He held Liang's hand and cut through the crowd. Liang gripped the man's hand, feeling the sandpapery texture of his palm. They found a spot, and leaning against the wall, they observed the people around them. When the man wanted to say something, he would tilt his body towards Liang, and speak into his ear, his breath warm and feathery, like the invisible wings of a dying moth brushing against his skin. At times, Liang moved his head in a way that the man's lips would touch him.
When the man asked him whether he wanted a drink, Liang requested for another beer, though he knew he shouldn't drink anymore. He watched as the man disappeared into a wall of standing men, and returned with two bottles of Corona beer. When the man drank, his full lips on the rim of the bottle, Liang watched, entranced. The man winked at him when he noticed Liang staring. Without missing a beat, he asked what Liang was doing later, what plans he had. When Liang shook his head and said no, he didn't have anything on, he was up for anything. At the words for anything he paused, putting a stop to what he was saying or hinting. He glanced away, awkward, but when he looked back, the man was still looking at him, head-on, his eyes like blinding headlights. Liang could not offer anything in return for this undiluted stare, except a defenceless compliance.
Do you want to go now? Get out of here? he asked. Before Liang knew what to do, he was following the man, heading for the exit. As they walked past the dining table, Liang picked up his Tupperware of leftover curry, while the man looking at him, took half a loaf of bread. For later, he whispered into his ear.
They got into his Honda, and the man drove them to a nearly deserted car park, in a quiet neighbourhood that was unfamiliar to Liang. In the darkness of the car, they said very little as the air-con hummed, blowing light currents of cold air that prickled Liang's skin. Not knowing what to do next, and feeling a need to say something, Liang said, I haven't done this before, and then, because of the expression on the man's face, half shrouded in shadows, faraway and unreadable, he added, well, actually, to be frank, I'm lifting his hand, but the man had leant towards him, unbuckling Liang's seatbelt and putting his hand on his thigh. The world was suddenly reduced, compressed to something that was unbearably intimate, close and immediate: the pressure on his thigh, the warm breaths on his face, the tightness in his throat.
Who are you actually? the man said. Who are you? His lips curled up in a smile, playful and disarming. Then he slid his hand further up and slipped it under Liang's shirt. Liang held himself up hold still now, hold still to the caress, simultaneously dreading and desiring what was happening, the unknown intimacy, the secret, furtive touch.
Liang bent in to kiss the man. And his body went down, in a blind, final surrender, a man caught in the waves that swept him asunder, finally giving up. The man pulled Liang's shirt off and placed his hand on the chest. Your body feels so warm, he said, turning to adjust the air-con knob. Is this better?
Liang moved to take off the man's shirt, tracing his tongue on his nipples, teasing the hardness, nibbling lightly. The man sighed, throwing his head back.
Let's move to the back. More space, the man said. Fumbling clumsily through the narrow space, they collapsed on the back seats, laughing. What do you want? What do you like? the man asked. Anything, anything you want, Liang said. They were quick to undress, struggling out of their jeans, and within seconds, they were naked, and hard.
I want you to fuck me, Liang said, holding the man's ear to his mouth. You sure? the man said. Yes, but be gentle.
The man scanned Liang's face. Have you done it before?
No, but I want to. Liang spread his legs, placing his feet on the headrest and the side-window. The man hesitated, then sat up, and moved to position. Tell me if it hurts.
The man entered Liang and stayed very still for some time. Then he began to move very slowly, almost imperceptible, building up the rhythm. Liang gripped the man's arms and tightened his legs around the man's waist. He pressed the man deeper into him, breathing hard.
I'm coming, the man said.
Come inside me.
The man grunted, and let go, his body trembling in death-spasms. Liang sought out the man's mouth, inhaling his exhalations, the man's cries muffled in Liang's mouth.
After cleaning up, they hugged and talked, and sometimes slipped into light snatches of sleep. From time to time, when one of them was in the mood, they would fuck. They took their time, and did not hurry.
Near the break of the day, as the night slowly gave way to the morning light, they took out the Tupperware of curry and broke the bread, dipping pieces of it in the curry. They ate and finished everything, as if awakened by a deep, primal hunger, even licking the sauce from each other's fingers and mouths. Slowly they dressed, feeling the weight of the clothes on their bodies. The man started the engine, which came to life with a fierce, impatient urgency. He sent Liang home, and they didn't exchange a word during the journey. Before Liang got out of the car, the man kissed him again, and jotted down his number on a namecard and passed it to him.
That was the last time Liang saw the man.
Liang went back to his married life, and for a long time, he avoided thinking about what he had done that night, or about the man. It was a slight diversion in his life, a brief experimentation, that had meant nothing, he told himself. His life was already set out before him, and there was nothing he could do to alter the course. He was a husband and a father these roles were what mattered. And whatever else the terrible secret, the hidden other self wasn't enough to sway him from what he had chosen, or believed he should do.
The years came and left, two, then ten, and then fifteen Liang turned fifty, and was a father of three children, two boys and a girl. He had stayed on in his job as an editor in a publishing company that specialised in cookbooks and children's books, and received his ten-year long service award some years back. Like his marriage, he was settled and contented in his job, not wanting to take any risks that might cause disruption to the life he had taken pains to construct. To his family and colleagues, he was a quiet, reliable and considerate man.
Sometimes, when he turned his gaze inwards and allowed himself to reminisce, Liang would think about the encounter with the man, in the car, having sex. The images in his mind remained clear, though the focus had softened somewhat over the years, like an object that had retained its original shape but lost its edges. He didn't let himself linger too long on the man his idea of him, vague, forming and coming apart, again and again or the whys or what-ifs. Liang only permitted what he could handle, and he never considered, even remotely, the future that was encapsulated in that episode in the past, in those eternal moments, that could have changed his present, for there was no way not then, or now that he would have chosen the right thing to do even if he could.
It was during spring-cleaning on the eve of the Chinese New Year that Liang found the namecard, held in the stuck-together pages of his old diary. He was clearing out the old boxes of belongings in the storeroom, while his wife and children were in the other rooms, cleaning and discarding. He stared at the name on the card, and whispered it to himself; he repeated it several times. Holding the namecard and fingering the edges, he was back in the car, a man in his thirties, testing the boundaries of his life with a love that was a culmination of his fears, longing and doubts. He was hopeful then, naοve too; the years passed, yet everything seemed to be the same, this reckless hope, this hopeless naivety. He leant heavily against the wall, breaking and breaking, heaving as if every breath of air had to be earned, to be seized by force. An inconsolable sense of wretchedness came over him.
When his eldest son came to look for him, Liang had to turn his face away, wiping it on the sleeve of his shirt. He didn't speak for he wasn't sure what would come out. Pa, are you okay? his son said, approaching him, taking small uncertain steps, his stare curious and puzzled. What was he to say? What could he say about the things he had not done, or about the things he had done that had made him who he was today? That now he had his regrets?
Take a break, Pa. You must be tired, his son said. Why don't you rest? I can handle this. Liang crushed the namecard in his hand, and stood upright, trying to find his balance. He took in a few sharp breaths, and followed his son out of the storeroom.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012