By Jayashree Panicker
In less than four months since its conception, your secret fling feels like that open can of soda left in the fridge for too long. A naked Anand lies on his back, biting a stale chocolate wafer, letting shard-like crumbs fall from the sides of his mouth. Some shards land on the swatch of hair sheathing his caramel, toned chest. Just weeks ago, you would have extended your arm to brush them off. A heady rush would have enveloped you as your fingers grazed his body. Not today. Just as you say, "it's not the same," a clash of cymbals from below fills the bedroom on the fifth floor. Anand gets up, startled. He teeters at the edge of the bed on his knees. His body is long, and his head rests against a metal square of the window grille. The melodic sounds of a brass band drown the cymbals. In your mind, you see what Anand takes in: a white hearse trailed by family and friends. The same sounds ushered you to the window sides of this flat as a child where you stood, rapt as Anand is right now. Then, you recall feeling sympathy and perverse curiosity at once as the finale of a traditional Chinese funeral unfolded in the carpark sandwiched by the apartment blocks. Of course, sympathy and perverse curiosity, exactly what prolonged this fling, this thing, whatever you have with Anand.
For the last four months in the absence of tenants, you have no reservations about fornicating a married man in your childhood home, the five-room HDB apartment where you lived till 11 years of age when your parents moved into a three-storey penthouse apartment on Holland Road. Your family retained ownership and sublet the apartment since. When you turned 18, for a small stipend, you'd been tasked with showing the flat to potential tenants with their real estate agents. Here, you took your first steps against the cool marble floors, endured your first fall against the said floors, rose towards your father's open arms, responded to your name being called out in your parents' singsong manner and, then to Anand's slight American accented, husky, authentic rendition in exhilarating moments preceding climax: "Prema, Prema!"
You were a brand new Prema Menon at the start of the romance like you had a new pair of eyes that perceived all things as beautiful, even your body's awkward bulges that Anand is too eager to pinch and grope. You meet on the pretext of attending an exercise class to your respective near and dear: your parents and his wife. Isn't this just another kind of callisthenics, a routine every other weekend? Post-sex, the two of you lie beside each other and chat. You talk about your childhood memories. One time, he discovers the palimpsest of a scar on the back of your left shoulder.
"What's this?" He rubs at the mark.
You must have been around eight. Ammama or your maternal grandmother had a habit of drying yours and your sister's long, thick hair with sambrani, or bezoin resin used by South Indians because of its therapeutic properties. One time, you sat with your back turned as she held a smoky brass pot with a long handle, letting the smoke strands rise through the curtain of your tresses when she accidentally pressed the pot's edge against your shoulder. You screamed as she removed the pot to reveal a scalded strip on your skin. You never liked sambrani since.
"Ma uses it too, back home, for prayers sometimes. It's like a really lovely, homey, herby scent."
A question wells up on your tongue: "What about your wife?" You don't ask. You couldn't because he pressed against you and speckled your neck with kisses. "Time for dessert," he whispers. You feel delicious as he partakes of your body, working his way downwards and you moan softly, feeling hot and cold at once. As soon as you are done, he dresses and leaves, leaving you to straighten up the place before making a move.
Now, you are going to have to clean up the crumbs. This irritates you. You'll have to take out the vacuum, peel off the sheets, dump them in the washing machine before you shower, hang the sheets on the bamboo poles in the kitchen before you leave. As you mentally make your to-do list, Anand still has his head against the grille.
"What are funerals like in India?" You ask while surveying the spray of crumbs on his side, unsure if he can still hear you. Anand lets his body fall back. His wide-mouthed yawn sounds like a frightful gasp for air. You've caught glimpses of funerals in India, where he's born, from the Tamil movies your parents watch. There was this festive quality. The dead body clothed in white was made to sit up on a chair hoisted up by bearers who walked down the streets, en route to the funeral pyre. There was a following of raucous individuals who indulged in song and dance.
So, you expect him to say: "Oh, a Bollywood movie, really!" but he turns his head sideways as if to remove a crick and says: "Not this stylish. I thought it was those, you know, the lion dancers."
"It's April, goondu!" the words are on your tongue, but you don't speak them. You reach for your phone on the bed. The time is two in the afternoon. You've been here since noon. "Okay, time's up," you say. You are aware of a tiny yearning for Anand to grab you, pin you under his frame and kiss you everywhere, like he used to. Instead, he gets out of bed with an "Oh man!" and rushes to pull on his clothes. "I better get an Uber, the wife's going to be pissed," he says as he puts a leg into his shorts. He murmurs something. You cannot process anything after he says "the wife." You know Anand has a wife, but the words make you feel awkward as if you've stumbled upon words you don't know the meaning of.
"So, next week, usual?" he asks as he leaves the room.
Sit up now, in that expensive short red silk dressing gown that you bought from Tangs early in the relationship when you were keen to look nice for him and feel worthy as a mistress. When you draped it over your shoulders the first time, he peeled it off as if peeling the skin off a grape, letting it fall from you into an abstract red puddle on the floor.
"I'm not sure, might be busy." At least, you sound convincing to yourself.
He's walking out. "Let me know then."
You hear the front door shut and slump back into bed. There's a heaviness in your gut. An ache? You are uncertain. The last two dinners at Valentino's, that Italian restaurant in Turf City where staff greet you as Mrs Anand causing you to blush each time, were dismal. You were sullen. The wife called one of those nights. He spoke in an obscure Indian dialect you didn't recognise. Based on what he told you, you conjured a mental picture of her on the other end: a sari-clad, bouffant-haired Jamila Ranjha of Mind Your Language fame, punctuating her sentences with a squeal: "haaan jee!" or yes, sir. As soon as he hung up, you asked to see a picture of her. He obliged. He swiped his iPhone and showed you the screen. The woman, the wife, had her head turned at an angle towards the camera as if someone snuck up on her and took her picture. She had sharp cheekbones, large innocent eyes and unsmiling bow lips. Her arched eyebrows gave her a look of surprise. Her eyes stared into yours. They asked: 'What? Why?' The charming waiter loomed over the two of you, refilling your wine glasses.
"She's gorgeous." Your eyes widening.
"She's actually really gorgeous, some people say she's Aishwarya Rai's doppelganger," he said, before slurping a forkful of oily linguine. Some oil flecks the sides of his lips. You poke at pasta parcels.
Later as a shock of cold-water gushes over your body, you think of her eyes. You are frightened. No, it wasn't because you were fornicating a married man in your childhood home. Her eyes, her innocent, limpid black puddles upon the whites. Would they have looked just like that if he revealed his affair? Contrary to your imagining, she wasn't a caricature. There was a Mrs Anand before you imagined yourself as one. Her gaze reminded you of a classmate from your years at the National University of Singapore. That brilliant student from India whose strong body odour caused your group of friends to secretly dub her Smelly Cat based on that Friends episode.
As you worked up a frothy, scented lather, that memory from those days bubbled up in your mind. Your group of friends including Smelly Cat had gone to the administrative office to collect free notebooks the college was giving out to students in commemoration of a special anniversary. The clerk, a petite Chinese man, gave the notebooks to your friends without a word. When you and Smelly Cat came up to his desk, he stared at the two of you and his exact words still ring in your ears: "This one only for NUS students." Smelly Cat turned to you. "What? Why?" Her gaze conveyed. The office had that antiseptic quality of a dentist's room. You told the clerk that you both were students and produced your identification card. Smelly Cat did the same. He inspected your cards carefully and looked up at your faces as if to be sure. Only then, the clerk dished out the books to both of you. Your friends hadn't said anything. You didn't want to talk about it either, but you felt like you didn't belong the way they belonged. Even now, you don't belong to Anand the way Mrs Anand belongs to him. You imagine washing Anand's fingerprints off your body. Foamy water flows down your feet into the shower drain. You are clean; you are clean, you chant inwardly. You see your blurry reflection in the glass plate doors of the shower. Your hair, a dark dripping tent. You're a mess, a weeping mess.
In the first week of November, you just began doing yoga at Pure Harmony, the swanky studio on the third level of a department store close to your workplace. You were awkwardly heaving into the poses at the instructor's behest. "Hold for 10 seconds," the instructor shouted after the class moved into the Plank Pose.
You shifted your gaze away from your reflection in the mirrors at the front of the class and caught Anand's, the only other Indian in the whole room. His skin was like toffee. He reminded you of Bollywood movie stars. Both of you shared breathless smiles in the mirror. This happened once, twice, thrice, often enough that when he spotted you sipping the complimentary iced lemongrass tea at the lounge, he sidled up next to you on the couch with his cup. You looked at him and smiled, a proper smile.
"Hi!" He stretched out a palm towards you. His wet hair was slicked back. Even though, he was Indian, the way he spoke reminded you of actors on American sitcoms.
"Hello." You shook his hand.
"I only ever see you in the mirror." He laughed. "Nice to see a real person."
"Anyway, I feel like I know you," he added before biting the brim of the paper cup.
"Oh, I get that a lot. I've got the international friend face."
"You're just cute!"
He introduced himself and shared his card. Anand Grewal, Regional Analyst at Citigroup, MBA from Harvard Business School.
"Nice." You look at his card. 'Are you Indian, like from India?'
"From Calcutta, but studies were overseas. Where in India are you from?"
"I am Singaporean. I've never been to India."
"Oh, but which part are your parents from?"
"We're Singaporeans. My grandparents are from Malaysia."
"Oh, so, what do you do?"
"I'm in marketing."
"Oh, nice! I'm just driving to my workplace. Can I offer you a lift?"
"No, thanks. My workplace is really near."
From then on, you turned to your side before the lesson began to see a smiley Anand laying his mat beside you. He sat by your side after the showers and made conversation.
Once, he opened the door for you. As you walked out, his voice rose behind you, "so, you've got a man?"
"No , actually. I'm single."
"What, a beautiful woman like you?"
"My status, always an issue for others than it is for me." There was weariness in your tone. How often have people expressed surprise that you're single?
"Only because it's true."
You turned your head and caught his eyes drop to your behind. He sucked the side of his lip. That curvy bum that he eyed as if eyeing a delicious chunk of meat was the reason you turned to yoga. Earlier, in October, you went to Penang for the weekend to attend your paternal grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary celebrations. At the lounge of Bayshore Hotel, you had been winding through the clusters of people, catching snippets of conversation that rose like champagne bubbles when you came within earshot of a group of drinking uncles, huddled at a bar table, gossiping like fishwives. The conversation piqued your interest. They had been dishing the latest news on a scandalous divorce involving a prominent Singaporean lawyer's son whom you had known briefly as a wonky teenager. Then you heard your name.
"Have you seen that Prema, Prema Menon from Singapore? Almost 30 now, single and still in some entry-level marketing job!" rose that voice with a heavy Indian lilt.
"Please, that one, spare the fella ah! He'll lose himself in that Indian Ocean bum of hers," said another, more gregarious one.
A fit of raucous laughter engulfed you as you quickly walked away. Nothing you've never heard before, you told yourself. Besides, hasn't your mother said worse? "Prema Menon! It's like I've picked you up from somewhere," she repeated from your teenage years to date. Your mother was skinny, a sharp contrast to your bountiful figure. You were different. You took after your father, his wide girth, his double chin, his Indian Ocean bum. Even inside the layers of fabric round your hips, your bum made a noticeable dent, enough to send your uncles into laughing seizures and feign concern for future lovers.
The rest of the celebration that day felt like a trance, and you spent most of it ensconced in your chair, fearing to reveal the expanse of your bum. You also hardly made a dent in the array of fried starters, heaping of fragrant Goan fish briyani and gold-flecked gulab jamuns floating in a cardamom syrup. "What is this? Dieting ah?" piped a curious aunt. You were apologetic: "No lah, just not feeling too good." Later that evening, you watched uncles and aunties dance awkwardly to old fifties' numbers played by the band. Back in Singapore, you felt riled up enough to find yourself breathlessly contorting your body into animal stances on a tri-weekly basis before work at Pure Harmony. Hence, Anand's overtures came as a surprise, a welcome surprise.
Before the studio closed over the festive season, both of you exchanged numbers. On WhatsApp, he sent messages, food pictures and screenshots of his Fitbit monitor. You replied with Smiley faces or Applause emoticons. He kept at it, sending you messages on obscure things, an attempt to pique your interest in his life, to foster amicability? He texted you in the evenings to enquire about you were up to. When you didn't reply, he texted: "Sorry for bugging you. I mean, I can't stop thinking of you, that's all."
You weren't sure how to reply, so you didn't.
"Sorry, was that awkward or something?"
"Well, can't help it. Wanna grab a drink sometime?"
At Cuba Libre in Clarke Quay on the last Friday of the year, you sipped icy rum Cokes with a sliver of lime and chatted under a triptych panel with paintings of Che Guevara. He became pensive as he spoke about "the wife." His forehead was creased. He had a hand propped under his chin. A stratum of lines appeared on his forehead. His perfectly shaped eyes were distant.
"She's just been sheltered and so young, we got arranged."
"You mean, your family arranged your marriage?"
"Really a business deal on my parents' part. She's this politician's relative, and in a place like India, it's just good to be connected, you know?"
"Oh, you know, connections, always good to have connections. You'll only know when you live there. It is your motherland after all."
"I'm Singaporean," you told him. Something about your voice quavering as if you weren't sure of the veracity of the statement.
"Ya, but you're Indian, no?" his voice lapses into the thick Indian accent.
You found an old cassette tape in your grandmother's room as a child. You became fascinated by the large loops of black film within the plastic case and proceeded to pull out the film strip from square holes at the top. You pulled and pulled till all the black tape unfurled in your little palms like a messy mesh. This was what you felt India was like, a chaotic web you didn't wish to set foot in, but you didn't tell him this. He went on then about his wife.
"I'm stuck with her, but there's you," he smiled, placed a hand over yours. "I really like you. I really do. I just feel close to you."
You bit your lip and remained silent. Both of you walked along the Singapore River and he took your hand again. As you took in the sights and sounds, you remembered your friend's mother's caveat about boyfriends when you were in Secondary school. "First, you'll want to hold each other's hands, then you'll want to touch each other in other parts of your bodies, then, you know what happens," she ended.
On Sunday before first week of January began, you were by the poolside of your parents' condominium, sitting on the plastic lounge chair with a magazine. Because of the weeks of yoga, you looked shapely in your brand new, scoop back one-piece. Though, the Indian Ocean bum remained the same. Your phone buzzed.
"Thinking of you."
You took a picture of your manicured feet on the lounge chair, facing the azure pool.
"Ooooof, what you wearing?"
About 10 minutes later, he replied with a picture of a tent-shaped bulge in his red and blue plaid pants with the accompanying message: "This is what you do to me, gurl! From imagining you in "little.""
You replied with a triad of Grinning Face emoticons followed by: "That's a first for me, unsolicited boner pic. Does it defy gravity?"
"You know, we could find out."
Before January ended, Anand and you lay on wet sheets at your family's apartment. When you mentioned about the vacant flat, Anand was eager to see the place "for perspective." You shared with your parents and sister casually over dinner that you would be showing the place to this guy from your yoga class. "Oh," Acha grunted over the iPad as if he just remembered about the flat. Amma was watching an Indian soap. "Our love loft," Anand called the flat.
Every other weekend, you carried out this affair. He winked at you during class. He asked you out to Valentino's once a week. You knew better than to talk about him to anyone. You imagined your girlfriends' rebukes. "Are you mad?" your sister might have said. You didn't want anyone to dismiss your affair, to tell you that you shouldn't be wrecking someone's marriage, so you guarded this like a delicious secret, creating an elaborate web of lies to your family and friends that you took a squash class on weekends when you knew nothing about the game, that you spent the night at work, compiling analytics when you returned home from Valentino's with fresh makeup. Life became much more fun.
All this drew Anand and you closer to each other. You relished cuddling in the flat, lavishing him with your childhood stories. You felt like you could tell him anything, so you didn't expect him to react the way he did when lying down, post-sex, you blurted: "You know, Anand, you smell great for an Indian."
Anand scrunched his eyes as he turned to his side. "What the fuck, Prema?"
There's was a coldness in his voice you don't recognise. It makes you feel like you're suddenly before your parents, awaiting reprimanding for an unknown misdemeanour. "Yea, you know, you always smell so nice and clean, unlike those workers from India."
He shot up from the bed. "What the fuck, Prema?"
"Are you dumb? That's fucking racist, what the heck do you think you are? You're Indian!"
His words were like bullets. A speck of saliva landed on your cheek.
"Bitch. You're an entitled bitch. Who built this great home for you? Who?"
"This is not what I meant! You're being a jerk right now."
"Oh, what you said was OK?'
"Anand, I meant it as a compliment. A classmate at Uni said the exact thing to me and…"
You told him about Smelly Cat. Outside of Smelly Cat's presence, your group of friends told you that they were so grateful you weren't like Smelly Cat, that "you smelled so nice for an Indian." They came up with jarring refrain: "Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat, do us all a favour? Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat, buy some deodorant!" You dabbed yourself with generous amounts of scented lotion and perfume daily. Anand just looked at you. You weren't sure if he was angry or sympathetic.
"Is this our first fight?"
Anand guffawed and began to dress.
After showering and leaving the sheets to dry on the bamboo sticks in the kitchen, you left the apartment with a raw ache in your chest. You felt like someone had unravelled you, the way you unravelled that cassette tape. As you waited for the pedestrian in the merciless heat, you caught snippets of on an obscure dialect spoken by two burly Indian men in neon orange vests and hard hats. Just a few feet from you, they were in the midst of ripping up the ground, replacing wires. Their words rose in the hot air. "Who built this home?" rang in your mind. Their voices, they didn't belong, but how much did you?
In the aftermath of your fight, you opened The Straits Times that week and turned to a half-page feature of a couple in their newly renovated Built-To-Order flat boasting sea views. You recognised the lady in the photo instantly. Smelly Cat or Valli Selvam, sits on a single-seater cushion in a form-fitting burgundy dress that reaches up to her knees, revealing her slim legs. The dress compliments her huge baby bump. Her husband is dressed smartly and has a hand over her arm. The article goes on to share about their process of applying for a flat via the Housing Development Board's fiancé and fiancée scheme, then launches into an interview with Valli's husband, a Singaporean Indian, on how he's managing finances. He worked as a CEO of his own company and shared about his ambitions to acquire another bigger property as they grew the family and to maintain the flat as an investment property. Strangely, the report didn't contain a single quote from Valli. There was a single line her husband made about her: "She's a sensible one. She told me, give the key ring with our house key before the engagement ring, and that's how we applied before we got married." In the picture, her belly jutted out like a large watermelon before her. You thought of taking a picture of the feature to share with Anand so you could show him what Smelly Cat, Valli, had become, but you turned the page. Anand still hadn't contacted you three days later, and you thought everything was over. You were sympathetic about his loveless marriage. Was this relationship just your way of saying 'There, there?" Sympathy and perverse curiosity. You just wanted to see where this could take you. You were upset that you made him upset. This news about Smelly Cat made you more upset.
Anand still hadn't contacted you and you felt like you were drowning inside. There was an invisible veil between you and the rest of the world. You couldn't focus at work. During lunch, your colleagues complained about some fertility awareness exhibition put up inside City Hall MRT station. You pushed your food around your plate, listening half-heartedly as they described wall-sized posters announcing punchy facts about male and female fertility, cartoon depictions of sperms and the uterus, a bespectacled cartoon sperm holding a bow and arrow. "What's the point of it all?" you felt like saying, but you felt a buzz in your pants' pocket. 'Valentino's tonight?' he wrote. 'OK,' you replied. Post-fight, something changed. Anand felt distant like he spoke in a foreign language you didn't recognise. There's a gulf between the two of you. You almost feel like a different person now. Something inside you has unfurled and unwound like that cassette tape you found.
You see him at yoga classes but don't make eye contact. After the shower, you leave immediately. The world feels like a stage, and you have this renewed energy. You neither heave nor pant when you do yoga. Instead, you do it with presence, a newly acquired attentiveness. You are performing. You're telling the world that you exist. You act as if you are the best that you can be. You imagine that Anand is a silent spectator watching you go about life with added gusto. Even your boss notices and suddenly asks you to sit into meetings with her. You flirt with male Uber drivers. You make small talk. You make sure to smile at everyone. In a matter of weeks, you can fit into a pair of jeans that had been festering in your closet for the longest time.
The memory of him loops in your mind when you're at Cuba Libre with friends. Thoughts of him invoke an existential crisis that you come to realise is just a way of existence, your existence. One day, he sends you a message, a video of himself speaking on Channel NewsAsia, which you delete before watching. Then, you stop seeing him at your usual class. Sometimes, during spare moments, you stare at your phone, his text box on WhatsApp. Sometimes, he is online, but he never texts. One day, you see his wife via his WhatsApp display picture of the couple with their faces pressed side by side. You see this picture as you steady yourself into yoga poses and slowly, the thoughts about him, the existential questions become like that pack of leftovers stashed in an obscure nook of the refrigerator. You walk down Orchard Road during lunch on the weekend. You turn arbitrarily and stare at the plate glass walls of a restaurant located at the ground level of a shopping centre. He sits across his wife at a table. She has this stoic expression reminiscent of models in magazine advertisements. Her sleeveless white and pink dress shows off her delicate collar bones. He points at something on the menu. She seems to be listening intently, resting her chin on her hand. You catch your reflection, a blurred apparition, looming over their builds. A 'tsk' rises behind you. You continue walking down the street.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020