A Small Thing
By Patrick Sagaram
What the fight was about that night was a small thing, really. Except that by the time we were done, it had gone beyond control, our sharp words poisoning everything we said. She wasn't going to let it go and I wasn't about to yield, as if I didn't have enough problems on my own. When it became clear that things couldn't be resolved, I went for a walk around my neighbourhood, past the canyon of flats, making my way to the park. In the daytime, the place is busy with runners, dog-walkers and kids who played Frisbee near the open patch of grass. At night it is deserted. Only light from yellow lamps filled the narrow walkways that stretched into the oily darkness. I looked up at the black sky, as insects screeched in the bushes, their war song rising and rising, until it felt like the night was about to swallow me whole.
Emerald Hill, three months ago. On a pub-crawl with friends, I ended up at No. 5 late one night, sucked down mixed drinks and sang along to whatever was blasting from overhead speakers. The crowd, hot and loosened by everything the bartenders served up, swayed with the music, bobbing heads, touching elbows. Which is how we met when her elbow made contact against my ribcage – a momentary flash of pain. At least I think that's how it happened. My mind goes fuzzy about these things because I was in pieces at the time.
Six months back, my wife called it quits having given up all hopes of reconciliation. It was probably a mistake but she made up her mind, saying sorry for what she had to do. I was sorry too but it was too late. Nothing could change her mind. Living in our flat by myself, I wasn't sure if I could land on my feet again. Grief turned into a question of finding my place in this world.
It wasn't as if things at work got any better. Mostly my fault because I was coming in late, hung-over and giving everybody including Adrian Pereira, my boss, the zombie stare. It got to a point when it got so bad that he called me into his office, issued a warning and told me in no uncertain terms that if things didn't improve, I was on my way out.
And my friends, they did what good friends do by making me feel better. By inviting me into their lives, they hoped to ease me out of my despair. On my part, I didn't want to hurt their feelings. I'd hurt enough people already so the point was to turn up even when I didn't feel like it. Dinner parties, soccer matches, tree top walks, yes – picture me on a nature trail, swatting mosquitos and trying to steer clear of snakes and lizards, when all I wanted was my sofa, nachos and Netflix.
So when Colin and Elaine asked me to join them for a pub crawl what they meant was for me to be ready for a long night and a skull-crushing hangover the following day. That's how I ended up at the bar late one Friday, high as a kite, when I felt an elbow to the ribs.
In the dim light, she looked rather wholesome – sweet with hair drawn back into a clip at the back of her neck, sleeveless top and jeans. She muttered something I couldn't quite hear.
I leaned in. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I said…" she closed in, her mouth inches from my ear but whatever she was trying to tell me was broken by rapid-fire synthesizers, heavy basslines and Chris Martin's hug-warm vocals, "…my birthday today."
"Well," I said. "Happy birthday."
"Do me a favour?"
"Sure," I said. "What is it?"
"I'm going out for a smoke," she said, patting her clutch. "I'm not supposed to but it's my last one. Come with me and make sure I throw the pack away."
"It's the last one every time," I said.
"Come on. It's my birthday. Let me have some fun."
"I'm sorry," I told her. "It's your birthday. You can have a little fun."
"I can," she said. "Of course I can."
I don't know for certain if it was coincidence but I lost sight of Colin and Elaine. Or if they had saw me talking to this girl or woman, whatever – she looked 30, give or take a few years – and decided to see what happens from afar. They have done it before only for Elaine to call up first thing in the morning, asking me for details. Except there was nothing to say because girls know in a matter of seconds if they want you or want to run away from you. Which tells you something about how I was doing.
She turned and pushed through the crowd until we reached the exit, where faint lighting along the walkway revealed small groups of people milling around, smoking, their conversations bloated with laughter. She retrieved a pack from her clutch, offered me one, which I took.
"Tien," I said, extending a hand.
I finished the cigarette with her outside the bar, enjoying a breeze that came up cool against our sweaty, drunk bodies. And I made sure to toss the packet into a nearby bin – but not before clowning around giving an exaggerated look of 'are you sure about this' with her standing there giggling away, telling me to get on with it.
Afterwards there were only two ways to go: either shake hands say, nice talking to you and goodnight, or I could try my luck. It struck me then. A passing moment when I pictured myself looking like how someone would see me: bare-bodied and slumped on the sofa, arm deep in a packet of Tostitos and drinking JD & Coke out of my ex-wife's – as I was thinking of her by this time – old coffee mug, binge-watching House of Cards and telling myself this was as bad as it got. This was rock-fucking-bottom. And I just thought, no. Enough was enough.
Next day I woke up on my sofa to the sound of hard whipping rain against my window, feeling a dull ache between my eyes and a terrible thirst. I was still in my clothes. I got up, fumbling around in the pale blue light of the morning. Now the remains from last night were clear to me: few bottles of wine and two half-empty glasses on the end of the dining table, one smeared with lipstick. And then my bedroom door opened and Cecilia walked into the living room and stood there for a minute, looking around before coming to some sort of conclusion.
"You look like shit," she said.
"I feel worse," I said.
"Do you have coffee?"
"Yes," I said, massaging the sides of my head. "Just 3-in-1."
"It will do."
"There's an extra toothbrush," I said. "In the drawer next to the sink. And towels too."
She left to wash up and I got up and went into the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, setting two cups on the kitchen top and putting the kettle to boil.
"You were so funny last night," she said when she came back into the kitchen again.
"Kept insisting on driving me home," she said. "Then you knocked out snoring on the sofa."
I put a palm on my face, shook my head. Just then the kettle clicked, steam rising from its spout. Emptying two sachets of Nescafé into the cups, I poured water and stuck a spoon in each of them. All I recalled from last night was a slow fade-to-black and not much of anything else. But then I knew in an instant that by having fun, I was making things go away. I was making myself forget.
"What's wrong?" Cecilia asked.
"Nothing," I said, handing her the cup. "It's nothing about you."
"I know," she replied. "I mean, I don't. Not everything. But you don't have to talk about it anymore."
She was staring into her cup of coffee. I pressed my lips together and looked outside at the strafing rain.
"So," she said looking up, grinning. "Any plans tomorrow tonight?"
"What do you mean nothing happened?" Elaine asked on the other line. I could hear Colin laughing in the background.
Keeping the phone pressed against my ear, I stuck my head in the fridge scrabbling from Panadol. Ten minutes ago, my eyes peeled open to a pounding migraine and three missed calls from Elaine. It was three in the afternoon.
"I mean exactly that," I said. "Nothing happened."
"I don't believe you," Elaine said.
"Then don't," I said, popping two capsules out of the wrapper and filling a glass of water. "But it's the truth."
"Were you that drunk?"
"It's not like that."
"Well, whatever," she said, "you can join us for dinner tomorrow. Colin won't stop talking about this new Japanese place at Shaw Centre."
"Umm, I can't. Sorry."
"I'm seeing her again," I told her.
"We're going out."
"You are? Like on a date?"
"I think so. We're going to catch a movie."
"Nice," Elaine said. "I'm actually impressed."
I forget what movie it was but it had Steve Carell and Keira Knightley and something about the end of the world. To be honest, I didn't care much for it. What did it for me was being with someone again: sitting in the dark, a whiff of her perfume now and then, the occasional brush of her arm against mine in the quiet overlap.
I wasn't sure what but it felt like something I lost had returned. A slice of optimism, perhaps. I held on to it, kept it close to my heart and carried it around with me everywhere for the next couple of days. Wasn't sure what was going to happen next but it made me feel alive again. And I kept going back to it – at work, in the car or when I was alone watching TV, and the image of her would come to me and I'd stop to think about it for a minute, breaking into a smile of sorts – and then laugh.
We spent the next few weeks hanging out. I'd meet her after work and we'd roam around town. Some nights we'd drop by bars along Keong Saik Road and drink 20-dollar cocktails – she'd always drink something that's syrupy-looking and decorated Andy Warhol Pop-Art style. Other nights we'd be pushing sushi on our plates and drinking from bottles of sake. Or having martinis at Mezza9 and talking, enjoying ourselves. Then back to my place where I'd take out the Absolut that I had chilled in the fridge and make it the way I liked it with lots of vodka and just a splash of orange juice. She'd put her arms around my waist, giving me a look, which implied: I know exactly what you need. Of course, I didn't need any convincing. Many mornings I'd wake up, my throat feeling raw and half a memory of things that occurred the night before. The world we lived in turned into fragments of the drinking and the entangled sheets and the hangovers that all ended in some empty space.
It got to a point when it became a problem. One grey weekend when the sky pulled over the city like a roof, tightening for a storm. Both of us in bed after champagne brunch and I had started to undo enough buttons on her blouse to expose the black bra she had on underneath. That's when she brought it up.
I claimed there was nothing to worry about.
"It's all we do," Cecilia said, palm on my chest, gently pushing me aside. But I persisted, fiddling away at the buttons.
"Please stop," she said. She paused for a moment allowing the silence to sling her next word. "Unless…"
"Unless it's not serious."
She sat up, back against the headboard with her knees drawn up under the covers. There was a pillow behind her back, and she was more on her side, away from me, her face flushed and her arms folded across her chest, tightly.
She might have been right, although I couldn't see it at the time. All I saw was myself stumbling once more, about to screw up again. So we stopped cold and traded our nights out drinking for grocery-shopping at the supermarket instead, me dragging a trolley behind Cecilia as she filled it with fresh fruit, greens and fish. At my place she prepared simple, healthy dinners, recalling her mother's recipes she'd learnt by heart. After our meal, we talked until the silences were long.
We'd curl up on the sofa and watch reruns of Frasier like I used to do with my then wife when our marriage was happy. After Cecilia went off to sleep I stood by the window, my breath fogging the glass and stared below at the glow of streetlamps lining the road. Tiny dots of light specking the estate across the park, blending into the cityscape. Those nights remain delicious in my memory.
And we stayed that way till January the following year. Like everyone, we fell into a routine. On weekdays we would chill at my place after work but there was always something on during weekends. We'd go to restaurants on the recommendations of friends, watch movies and even caught a play at the Esplanade, some artsy production I didn't quite enjoy but it didn't matter. Colin and Elaine invited us to their place for dinner and when Elaine texted me the photos later, I couldn't help but think how happy I looked grinning behind a lit candle, holding a forkful of spaghetti. I was my old self again. My mornings were clearer. Gone were the headaches and thirsts. I was up before six, getting to work earlier and getting more done at the office. Some of my idealism had returned.
"I forgot to tell you," Cecilia said, finishing up in the kitchen. "I've got a wedding to attend next month."
"Oh," I said, turning on the TV. "A close friend?"
"My ex-colleague. From my McCann days."
"OK," I said. "You'll have fun catching up I suppose."
I had dimmed all the lights in the living room and the TV filled the space with a blue flickery glow. Earlier that evening, I got a call from my lawyer informing me things were settled which meant only a few months left before I had to move out. "All the best," my lawyer said and hung up. I did see it coming but now I wasn't sure how to break the news to Cecilia or if I did what she would make about my situation. Even if I wanted to talk to her about it, I didn't have a clue what to say. And what came out of my mouth was something else.
"Are you," I asked, "going to be drinking?"
"Of course I am," she said, flopping next to me, biting into an apple. "Everybody's going to be drinking."
"What about what we agreed?"
"It's a wedding," she said. "What do you expect me to do?"
"But we agreed," I said.
"Look," she said. "I'm not the one with the problem."
It was no more than a flippant remark. I could have dismissed it, telling myself she didn't mean to. But in my mind it sounded like a verdict. And my reasoning shaded rapidly. In an instant the TV remote was in my hand and I had pressed a button to make the figures on the screen blip into a single point in the centre. We sat in silence, her face, blue in the half-light.
I could feel it coming, plates below us shifting and colliding. Before we knew it, we used words we couldn't take back. Angry, hurtful words, things we never knew we kept inside lay open, our cards on the table. That's how I wound up at the park that night, feeling the world close in on me. At least we learnt the truth, what we've been fooling ourselves into thinking all this time. When I returned home she'd left in a hurry, like a woman fleeing a burning city. I guess there was nothing left to expect, really.
By March a couple expressed interest in the flat and offered more than double its original price. My former wife didn't hesitate. Neither did I. Possibly the only thing we saw eye to eye in a long time, I realised later.
The night before handing the keys over to the lawyers, I stood by the window, staring at all the flats in the distance as the soft sounds from the street below were carried inside. It was a delicate night, hint of rainfall to come. Moving from one room to the next, I opened and closed empty drawers and flicked with the switches to make the lights go on and off, taking in the stillness and emptiness of the place.
My thoughts crossed over to a few weeks ago when I met Colin for drinks at a pub along Siglap Road. We sat at the bar and watched EPL highlights on the flat-screen TV. After two beers, Colin began complaining how much Elaine was working these days, how hard it was for them to start a family if she carried on this way. I was listening when halfway I noticed two ladies at the end of the bar, getting up to leave. I took another glance at one of them. She styled her hair in a sweet-looking pixie cut and wore a white tank top which gave her face and painted nails a sheen in the soft light.
Colin caught me looking, clapped me on my shoulder. He jerked his chin towards her. But she was out the door before I could find the courage to walk up, say hello. It didn't occur to me then but now I realised I had nothing to lose. I could do as I please. I could have a drink anytime with no real edge to the consequences. But the more I considered my situation, what struck me was the last thing Cecilia said on the night we fought like two cats in a bag. That without the fights and figuring things out together, there wouldn't be a point to it sooner or later. And she was right about that.QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019