Lucky For This View
By Audrey Tan
The man and baby are parked facing the green, murky sea. The sky is white—all clouds, as if overhead, a sheet had been draped over from end to end. His baby is asleep, its heavy cheeks slack, head lolling to the side, the folds of its fat arm slick with sweat. Unbuckling himself, the man leans across to the baby in the infant seat. Light whorls of hair are stuck to its forehead, and the shapes of its brows have already begun to form, dark and alert. The man shifts the baby's slouching body and cups a hand around its neck to support it; tries to remember what his wife said about the right angle. The state has just announced that all bubble-tea shops have to close. Over the radio, the newsreader delivers these updates: what businesses are essential or non-essential; what numbers of the infected are local or foreign. So much of the world is sick—if not, their livelihoods upended; the man ought to feel more urgently grateful that here he is, in the car, with his non-fussy baby. He turns the radio knob to a classical music station and jabs the arrow button of the air-conditioning, although it is already going at full blast. He listens to his baby's breath and imagines a quiet valve blooming and contracting, blood sloshing about. How tiny and fleshy its heart must be—like a plum, sweet to suck on.
There are no other cars around. The palm trees on the beach are thin and still. A mynah lands on the hood of the car, watching the man. Leoš Janáček's 'Sinfonietta' is on. He cranks the seat back and closes his eyes. Just as a fog of sleep is about to carry him away, a black car pulls up beside him. He can feel the hum of the other car's engine. There is a sleeping dog in the backseat of the car. Its shaggy head has sunk down into its front paws. The man watches the profile of the woman driver as she pulls the handbrake – her neck slack with fine lines, small nose with a blunt tip, left ear round like a shell. His baby is still deep in its nap. The man clicks open the door and hops into the other car.
The scent in the woman's car is spicy and citrusy.
"Oh, look at the little one—getting so round," says the woman.
The man peers through the tinted windows and sees his baby stirring from its sleep. Its brows are knitted in a quivering expression that could either blow over or erupt into a great cry. His heart catches for a moment, the way it does before a goal is scored at a football match. The baby doesn't cry.
"It lives, it eats," says the man. "Five fat months of life." He shakes his head. He wants to touch the woman, but doesn't know where. Her thigh, her arm, her cheek? She is wearing a navy organza blouse and white pants. Her once sharp haircut is overgrown with a floppy fringe and thick sideburns, making her look like a lazy teenage boy.
"Maybe you should grow it out," the man says, patting the back of his own head. His haircut is uneven, trimmed jaggedly by his wife two days ago, because all hairdressers had also been ordered to shut down.
"Why? You don't like it?" The woman laughs and shakes out her hair. Some grey roots peek out. It's the first time the man has made a comment like this to her, Georgina Fong. Georgie. G. G. F. G-spot.
"You know there's nothing," the man says. "There's nothing—I can't—I don't know."
Georgina turns the engine off. A green surgical mask hangs from the rear-view mirror as if it were an amulet. The windows whine softly as they retract. She leans into him, one hand on his shoulder, and the other cupping his jaw. Humidity pours into the car. Her breath is warm but light. He can feel her palm pressing him into the seat, and his own body, gangly, almost fragile. He allows himself to enjoy the kiss, the drifting-off. His hands begin to slide under the netty fabric of her blouse. The dog in the backseat stirs. It lifts its head and paws the leather.
"No, boy. Down," says Georgina while resting a hand on the man's crotch. "Sorry," she says to the man. "Bad timing." She begins to cackle. He takes this chance to break away.
"Georgie," he says, pulling his zip up then patting his shirt. "My baby's just there." He puts his face in his hands and his glasses go awry. "And you still do it," he says.
"Baby," she says, peeling his hands away. "Oh David," she continues, in a way he cannot decide is kindness or condescension. "Who's the baby now?"
He imagines how he looks to her—head bowed and droopy shoulders caved in. A wronged, sulking child. The corner of her lips curls up. She grabs his arm, and they embrace uncomfortably, sideways, over the gear console.
"I'm sorry," she says, in the same coaxing whisper he uses while rocking his child to sleep.
"How's everything? How's your mum?" he says. They are both staring at the dashboard.
"What do you think. Everyone calls her Yew Tee Queen. Staying home all day is killing her more than kidney failure."
"Circuit breaker," David says, rolling his eyes back and trembling, feigning an electric shock.
"That's not how it works," Georgina laughs, but she repeats, "Circuit breaker." She reaches out to finger the hanging surgical mask. "The wife's looking well as ever," Georgina says. "You wouldn't have guessed she pushed a human out -- what, five, six months ago?"
"Mia is Mia," David says. "She puts in a lot of – Aiyah. She has all these creams. And sebums…"
"Ha. What's the difference?"
Georgina's correction is suddenly grating on him. He begins to realise her audacity to make him say his wife's name aloud. Minutes ago, she'd made him so breathless and furtive; he felt like a teenager feeling up some girl in a stairwell. He turns to face her completely, his right shoulder jamming against the backrest. She is playing with the mask straps. Even the curl of her lashes begins to look malicious. "Anyway," he says. "Why? Why the hell would you do that?"
The day before, Georgina bumped into Mia in the lift. Georgina had just completed an evening jog. She had a leash noosed to her wrist and the dog was panting in the corner, staring attentively at Mia. It wagged its tail.
"Helloo cutie," Mia said, but stopped short of touching the dog. Her cooing was muffled, trapped behind a three-ply fabric mask.
"Good run?" Mia said.
"Yah. Nice weather. How about you? Went to buy stuff?"
"Ran out of garlic. Also, just an excuse to leave the house lah. Really need some fresh air nowadays."
It wasn't the first time the two women had spoken. Mia was the sort of person who could exchange pleasantries with strangers easily. She'd moved into the condo two years ago after marriage, and knew of Georgina—the single lady on the fourth floor with a dog: a nice lady who was a little reserved. Mia herself was affable and liked to show that she wasn't paranoid about anything, surely not the kiasu type who'd let a flu virus make her needlessly guarded against others. She also thought that the new rule of barring non-household members from entering her home was arbitrary, and frankly, quite dumb. So when Georgina said she was on the way to the top floor to catch the sunset from the corridor, Mia said, why not drop the dog off then go up to her home instead. It'll only take a few minutes, and it was no problem if Georgina kept her mask on.
Mia and her husband were on the 24th floor, the second highest in that apartment block. Their living room had the view of the reservoir – unblocked. From up there, you could see the entire stretch of the water, the shimmer of its ripples, and feel the cool, clear air. On wine-and-cheese nights, the couple's friends would stand by the window closing their eyes in theatrical pleasure, marvelling that it was just as good as being overseas.
When David saw his wife and lover enter his home, he could only say, "Wow." He knew getting busted would be inevitable, but surely not now? During a global pandemic? But when his wife saw his gaping expression, she said, "Don't look so scared! Just the neighbour. She wants to see the sunset. A few minutes only. Wear mask, it's OK."
"Uh, yah. That's fine. Welcome, welcome," was all he could manage, watching Georgina dressed in lilac tights go to his window.
A baby monitor was on the coffee table. A toy monkey lay on the floor with a soggy, teeth-marked banana in its hand. Puzzle pieces of the alphabet mat were dislodged. The couple stood some distance from their neighbour. One metre was the rule to keep between strangers in public spaces. And perhaps because they were already breaking the law for letting their neighbour in, they felt compelled to observe this one rule.
Pink clouds fanned out in the sky. The surface of the water turned orange, as if aflame. Thick foliage formed an even, green line along the horizon. Far beyond the reservoir, clusters of buildings were soaked in the golden sun. "Beautiful," said Georgina to the window, her hands pressing on the ledge. A yolky glow was pooling on the white tiles. Mia smiled at her husband. "We're very lucky for this view."
The man's baby was asleep in the nursery, and in that moment, he thought he could hear the baby's heart beating in the room down the hall. It was a powerful and steady throb, pulsing in the evening light. The man stood beside his wife, wringing his hands. Their bodies were bathed in the light. His clenched jaw relaxed. And suddenly, he felt for the first time, a pure surge of love and gratitude towards his child, who was breathing quietly in the house. Life was beauty, and beauty was truth. The man had the urge to take the hands of his wife and lover, and confess to his failure towards both women.
But Georgina turned around and said, "Thanks for letting me…" The sky was turning dark, bruised by the oncoming night. Mia waved and said, "Don't mention lah. See? The world still goes on. The sun has to set. Tomorrow it will rise again." David was irritated by his wife's made-up proverb and how she thought it'd profoundly comfort her neighbour, the single woman who lived downstairs. Georgina chuckled, and it came out low and garbled behind the surgical mask. "Yes, that's right," she said, while looking at David. He had a hand on the sofa and his fingers were clawing the leather. "Very nice place," she nodded.
As Georgina turned to leave, she tripped on the toy monkey. Her right knee landed on the baby's mat, and the other leg steadied herself, bent exactly at a right angle. She looked like she had gotten down on one knee. "Oh dear," said Mia, hands flying to her mouth. Then, Georgina flopped down on her bum, and she sat there with her thighs splayed out and started to laugh. Mia began to apologise for the mess, but soon joined in. The women's voices made the man feel sick. "I'm OK," Georgina said, wheezing behind her mask. David was forced to look at her. As she bent to push herself up, her pale neck dipped into the dark line between her breasts, and her hips jounced as she rose. David was so disgusted by his arousal that he forgot all affection for the baby. Months of a long, quiet rage began to slip back to him. He was utterly desiring his lover. That very evening, when his wife was feeding, his sent Georgina a text message.
It is starting to rain on the beach. Georgina rolls up the windows. The raindrops fall, like small pebbles bouncing off the car.
"What kind of sick joke was that?" David says.
"Your missus invited me."
"Of course! The ever-obliging neighbour."
"Did you see your face when I came in? At this rate, you're screwing it up all by yourself. Not me," says Georgina, playing with a small tube of hand sanitiser. A tiny goop pops onto her palm. The sterile scent settles between them.
David says, "If you can't see, I'm really trying. Last time, you said yes! You said we'd stop. You're crazy." He lifts his glasses to rub his nose bridge. The dog begins to bark.
Georgina glances to the backseat and places a hand on the man's back. Even through his shirt, he can feel the coolness of evaporated alcohol on her skin.
"Always a drama mama," she says softly.
"I'm an idiot. Sorry. I know I asked to see you," says David. "But I'm a father now." He says 'father' the way someone would say 'God' – with both reverence and uncertainty.
"You sound like an anti-gambling advertisement."
"Georgie. It's my life. Why is this all some joke to you?"
"It's not. It's never been. But you're a child. A stupid boy who doesn't ever!—know what he wants. And I could see that, right from the start."
Anger pours out of David's chest in hard, roaring waves. He sobs and sobs into his hands.
"Please sanitise your hands after you're done."
The rain comes in torrents. David feels a chill then panics about the baby in his car—he did not turn down the air-conditioning. He looks out the side window, but it's as if the rain has formed a white wall right outside the door. A clap of thunder rips overhead. The dog barks again, piercingly, but Georgina lets it be. David squints hard. He thinks he can make out his baby with its limbs curled in, its face contorted and red with terror, as it pushes each trembling wail out of its chest.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020