By O Thiam Chin
It has been a week since the accident, and my wife's sleeping soundly on the bed. Her eyes are closed and I kiss them lightly. She doesn't stir; I brush her hair with my hand. I have just washed it with her favourite shampoo and conditioner – she doesn't believe in two-in-one shampoo. The hair runs through my fingers in soft silky threads. I arrange her hair on the pillow, keeping it straight, brushing the strays from her face. She doesn't move, and the heart-rate monitor beside the bed beeps. I stand back from the bed and take in her sleeping form, her body tucked under the thick blanket.
The doctor said she may wake up any time now, that there's no telling when; he has seen cases where the patients just opened their eyes one day and resumed their lives. He put his hand on my shoulder when he said this, and told me not to worry. I cast his words aside, and after spending three nights in the hospital, I decided to bring my wife back home. I have not gone out much since then. The flat is my entire world; everything else is unnecessary, trivial. I spent most of my time by the bed, holding my wife's hand, keeping her company, hoping. Sometimes I talk to her and check her face for response, for sign of movement. I know she's still there, inside her sleeping body, her mind alive and ticking, sending signals all over the body, keeping it functioning, intact. It amazes me to no end, coming round to this truth: the human body as a thriving underground city, hidden, pulsating with secrets and intentions and meanings. Life is resilient and my wife's a tough woman; she will survive this. I imagine the life we would have when she wakes up, finally, eventually.
Sitting by the bedside, I pore through her journals and letters that she has kept under lock in the lower drawer of her study table. Thankfully I have a spare key that she doesn't know of. In one of the earliest letters: 'Love is an unpredictable thing. You never know how it's born, or what it's made of, or where it's going.' My heart jumps at these words, each time, no matter how many times I have read it.
'Maybe it's easy to explain love in this way, to give it a quality that is hard to pin down, its unpredictability as its nature, its workings as the way of nature. Maybe it's the easiest way to explain how I have grown to love you. Can you see how difficult it's for me to do this, to put down these words, to create a reality out of something that is unseen or unreal?' I drop the letter in my lap, dizzy with derision. I reach for my wife's hand.
In another letter: 'Every day you would sit at your desk, typing, drinking your coffee, chatting with the other secretaries. You look contented, even happy. You would give me a smile when I walk past your table and I'd hold your smile in my mind, like a precious gift besotted. You are friendly with everyone, and there's no way to know whether the smile you lavished on me is the same smile you gave to the rest, but it doesn't matter. I hold the kiss to me, it's mine.'
My eyes burn from reading these words, but I hold back. I clench my wife's hand; it's soft, baby-like smooth and doesn't return my grip. When I release her hand, it drops to her side, her palm facing up, her fingers bent slightly inward. I kiss it and put it under the blanket. The machine beeps once, and the numbers on the monitor screen drop and stabilise again.
I put my head on her chest and listen. Her heart sounds like a little dark creature pounding inside her, trapped, surviving but with little hope. I count her heartbeats against the time on my watch, one minute, then five, ten and twenty. The creature moans and moves, never missing a single beat. I want to reach in, pull it out and hold it up to the light. I want to see what my wife's heart looks like, to see the very thing that's keeping her alive.
I have unplugged the phone in the flat, just before the accident; about my mobile phone, I have no idea where I have left it. I don't have the need for distraction now. The flat is silent, like a mausoleum, and when I talk to my wife, the sound of my voice carries through the air, calm and soothing; it doesn't sound at all like me. It's the voice of a man who accepts his lot in life, a man in control of himself. I wonder whether my wife would like this kind of man, one with a confident, stable and uncomplicated outlook of life. The choice is beyond her now, anyway.
Once or twice, someone would knock on the front door. I keep very still and listen. 'Just wait,' I whisper. 'They will leave soon. Nobody will bother us again.' When the sounds behind the door die away, I peep through the eyehole, checking, making sure. I throw away the pamphlets that have been slipped through the bottom gap of the door, advertising pizza delivery or rental of flat units. I stuff a large torn towel into the gap, but still they litter the doorsteps with these unwanted pamphlets. I make it a point to clear them so that the neighbours will not make a fuss or grow suspicious about our whereabouts; it's always important to keep up appearance and act like nothing's out of the norm.
I love my wife, as a husband should, but she's a stranger to me. The long untried years passed in a swift, and then she's no longer the woman I know, changed, and evolving under her skin, out of sight; though, of course, it's hard to tell when I have gotten so used to her – her presence, her moods, her ways – and taken everything for granted. A person changes constantly, in concealment, in quiet unassuming ways; the light shifts just a bit, and suddenly she's revealed, a different woman, alive in ways you never know possible, and it's hard to take your eyes off her, awed and fascinated. Before I find the stack of letters, I rarely give much thought to my wife's life; but now, it's all I want to do, to read everything she has kept, though the revelations of what I have discovered bring its own hurts and pain.
'A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.'
I come across this unfolded note, jutting out from the cluster of letters, and read it to my wife. I enunciate each word slowly, as if I were an actor on a stage giving a soliloquy, composed, unruffled by the commotion happening around him, trying to undo him, to distract him from the task. I throw out the words, like stones, at my sleeping wife.
'That was from Carson McCullers; I'm sure you know this passage well. You had it printed out on a slip of paper, tacked to your work cubicle wall. I have memorised it by heart when I sat at your table at night when everyone had left the office. Forgive me, if you can, but I know you love it when I whisper these words to you when we make love. You don't say it but I can tell. From the way you hold your body to mine, pressing your ears to my mouth, whispering the words back to me, into me.'
I search the bookshelf in the living room and find the book. The Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. I read every story in the book, almost finishing it, till I hit the exact quote. I tear out the page and stick it to the wall, memorising the words. I imagine my wife's voice as she would have read it, the clarity and pitch of it. I hold her voice inside me, a tiny voice in the wilderness of my heart. The words dance in my mind, slipping in and out of consciousness, dangling their meanings – faint, strange and elusive – before me, always out of reach, incomprehensible.
I recite everything to my wife. I want to know whether they would have any effect on her. I breathe the words on her skin, massaging them in with my hands. Can she feel it, this pleasure of words and touch?
'Can you hear what I'm saying? Can you understand what I've said?' I whisper, but nothing stirs in her, her posture remains rigid and aloof.
Sometimes the long monologues tire me out; I talk to her about everything: her life, mine, our courtship. I'm not sure whether I remember all the details correctly, but still it's important that she knows, though she can't hear me. It's in the telling that matters. Even as I'm telling the story of our lives, I'm also aware that she too has her own version of it, one where she stands in the heart of her story, the omniscient narrator.
I change her clothes every day: a t-shirt, a pair of black slacks, and beige bra and panties. The T-shirts are all white, size small; I bought a dozen of it at the supermarket, ten dollars for three. Life's so much easier when you don't have to decide what clothes to wear, or what colour suits you; you take what's given, no question asked. Instead of waiting for the laundry basket to fill up, I wash everything with my own hands. I sprinkle a dusting of washing powder on each piece, wet it slightly, and work up a lathe by giving it a few rough rubs. Then I wash the clothes under a running tap of hot water, wring them dry, and hang them up on the bamboo poles in the kitchen. Sometimes when the breeze goes through it – flapping the bra-strap or lifting the shirt-hem – I'd stop and stare, caught off-guard by these little gestures.
I like the smell of dry, clean laundry, the lingering scent of the washing powder; I put my face into the chest of the shirt, taking long breaths, and feel the softness of its texture. I have cried into them on a few occasions, and now I'm learning to control the swing of my mood, to know when it's turning for the worse. I smooth out the creases and fold the clothes into small, compact shapes, straightening out the corners. The sight of the neat, tidy stacks of clean clothes never fails to lighten me up. Even as I put away the clothes into the respective drawers in the wardrobe, I can't help but take glances at my sleeping wife lying on the bed, hoping maybe she can see what I'm doing, keeping everything in order.
Every day, after removing her overnight clothes, I clean my wife with a damp towel. I start from her face and slowly make my way down her body. I wipe her jaw line from ear to ear, then her neck with a vein pulsating visibly under the skin, and down her collarbones. I rinse the towel and move to her hands, arms and armpits where a light fuzz of hair is starting to grow. It's strange to see and touch my wife's body in such closeness – how long has it been since I take time to study every part of her, before the accident?
Gently I wipe the underside of her breasts, down her pale stomach, and into the dark region of her crotch. I watch her face as I move the towel between her legs, waiting for something to stir in her expression, a flick of desire. Her eyes remain closed, her face placid. When I clean her back, I lift her upper body and lean it into mine, her head on my shoulder. Sometimes I drop the towel and wrap my arms around her unresponsive body, hugging her tight. After I'm done, I'll powder her with J&J's baby powder from body to toes and put a fresh set of clothes on her.
As she sleeps, I continue to read the letters that I have found hidden among her belongings.
'I often wonder how he's like, this man you claimed to love. You said you love him, but your face tells a different thing. I have seen you with him several times, once when he picked you up from work, and another time at the shopping mall near your place. You look distracted, distant when you're with him. I know you're unhappy, but you can't leave him. You said you have loved him once, and it'll be wrong to leave him. I know it's your guilt talking, this lie you tried to convince yourself, every time after we made love. You tell me this, and I don't know how to react. And then you would turn to me and kiss me, and all I can do is to give in to you, to take hold of something that isn't mine to possess in the first place. I used to hate you for what you're doing to yourself, and to me. How can love and hate be so similar sometimes, the intensity, the madness?'
I pause at this point in the letter and stare at the red numbers on the monitor display. I fold the letter, putting it back in the envelope, and then, in the flick of a terrible moment, I tear it up. The sound of tearing cut the silence in the room like knife slashes.
With time on my hands, I begin to clear the clutter from the flat. I start with the storeroom. The rusty exercise bike, the faulty rice cooker, the shoes my wife kept that she can't bear to throw away, the smudgy watercolour posters done during her spare time – these are the first things to go. It gets easier after a while. I don't bother to check the contents, tied up in pink plastic bags or packed in small parcels; I simply throw them out. I don't want to disrupt the momentum, to stop and assess the value or importance of any of these items. What I don't see doesn't affect me, this dusty accumulation of my marriage, our shared history. I want to strip my life down to the core, the bare essentials, and I have grown to abhor the mess I have allowed my life to slip into. It seems like with each item I throw out, I'm getting back missing pieces of my life, a sense of control. If it's possible – how I long and work towards it – I want my life to start on a clean, blank slate: just me and my sleeping wife.
Before throwing the watercolour posters out, I bring one – her favourite, I recalled, of a Sunday dusk scene at the Botanic Gardens – to her, placing it on the bed. I put an extra pillow under her head and arrange her body in an upright position; her body feels bony – all edges now – and lighter. 'You painted this, remember?' I say, and guide her finger across the cracked surface of the poster. 'You always love painting the end of a day, its gradual passing, the dying lights.'
I remember the day she painted this poster. She had packed her brushes, her tubes of paint and the empty canvass, and asked me to drive her to the Botanic Gardens. 'You don't have to stay and wait, if you don't want to,' she said. I stayed and waited for her to finish her painting. We sat near the swan pond, near the entrance of the Garden, under the shade of the spreading rain-tree, watching the sun bleed itself out in the sky. She didn't say anything while she painted, her body rigid, her eyes focused. 'This is good,' I said. She ignored my comment, a quick gesture of annoyance evident in her expression. She took about two hours to complete it; by then, night had descended and the noisy hordes of families gone.
When I run out of food – no fresh produce, no perishables, only canned food – I head down to the Shop & Save supermarket in the next block and buy another week of groceries. I try not to spend too much time, grabbing only the things I need: a 1kg pack of rice, canned sardines, luncheon meat, preserved cabbage, salted peanuts, black-sauce beans. I pay the exact amount each time – no need for small talk with the cashiers – and rush back home.
Once I enter the flat, I drop the grocery bags on the kitchen table and head into the bedroom to check on my wife. Of course, she's still lying there, silent, immobile, sleeping; I have tied the cloth restraints on her wrists to the side-bars of the bed-frame, just in case she moves in her sleep and falls off the bed. I study her statistics on the monitor and check the drip-tube attached to her left arm. Only when I'm sure everything's in order would I leave her alone, again.
I put the cans of food away and prepare a simple meal: porridge with soy sauce and salted peanuts. I cook enough porridge for two persons, eating the second share for dinner if I'm hungry. Sometimes I eat beside the bed, bring tiny scoops of porridge to my wife's lips, leaving flecks of rice on them. When I finish my meal, I wipe away the untouched rice on her lips with a face towel. It worries me to see my wife slowly fading away before me, becoming thinner by the day. I may have to bring in a doctor soon, but until it's absolutely necessary, I will hold out against it, my last resort.
At night, I sleep beside my wife, putting my body close to her, my nose in her hair. I move my forefinger across her face, tracing the outline of her features, trying to imagine the dream she's having. I hug her too, fitting my body to her, assuring her of my presence. Some nights, when I dream too wildly, I'd wake up screaming and feeling in the dark for the tangible proof of my wife's body, that she has not disappeared. On those nights, I would watch her intensely, not daring to move away from the bed, wrestling with the cruel, unwanted thoughts in my head.
The human body never stops functioning, even when the mind's gone. The heart continues to pump, and the hair and nails continue to grow. Now that my wife is incapacitated, I have to take care of the primping and upkeeping of her body. I trim her toe- and fingernails slowly, careful not to clip too close to the skin. I wiped them with a cold towel, applying hand-cream to her slender fingers, massaging. When I feel she wants a doll-up, I put a coat of fire-red nail-paint on her nails, and blow them dry. I hold up her hands and kiss each finger. I put her hands on my face, and try to remember the last time she has held me in this way.
'You have a premonition, a fear you can't shake off,' the email begins. I have taken over my wife's laptop and have been looking through her emails. She's careless about her password, jotting it down on a piece of post-it note – striking it off, writing down a new password whenever she changed it – and leaving it under her desk calendar. Now that she doesn't have the need to check her account, I do it on her behalf.
'The way he looked at you, the words he used, it's as if he knew something. But I want to assure you that it's just your fear working its way through you, the needless guilt you feel for doing the right thing. Don't overreact; don't let your fear get to you.'
I go through every single one of her emails, reading each email two to three times. I delete everything from her account. Everything starts anew for her now. I don't want any unhappy history to blight her current blameless state. She has suffered enough, and now I know she's ready to begin a new phase with me beside her all the time, watching her, taking care of her every need.
During the lull, unguarded hours of the day, when my mind slips into a dark, moody trance, I find it hard to focus my thoughts. Strange, violent images fill my head, dragging me down. I stare at my wife – her face a changing mask of innocence, complicity and betrayal – and I have to restrain from putting my hands around her soft neck. Instead I grip her hair with my fist, tilt her face towards me, holding my breath and waiting for the bloodlust to pass. Nothing seems to frazzle her, to break through the surface of her imperturbable composure, her defiance. It takes forever to come around to my usual self, to calm myself down and when my head clears, all I could feel is a deep sense of self-reproach, for not keeping my dark mood in check. Then I kiss my wife's forehead, smooth back her hair and whisper my apologies into her ear. It's comforting to know forgiveness is a give-and-take thing when a couple learns to accept each other' faults, in words and in silence.
Sometimes when I talk to her about our past, my wife would display tiny gestures to let me know she's listening. A slight twitch of her finger, a light flutter of her eyelid, and the slackening of her mouth as if she's about to say something in return. I lean in, anticipating her next gesture. I wait, and I watch. I'm always here for you, I tell her. Her chest rises and falls, another exhalation, the hidden life of her body. Even in her slumber, she's keeping her secrets.
I have cleared out most of my wife's belongings when I stumble upon a note in the front pocket of her dark pants. It's the same pants she was wearing that night. The note is hastily scribbled with wild cursive loops: 'Since this is what you want, then we'll do it. Meet me at 6 this evening. This will all be over soon, I promise you. You'll be safe with me.'
I tear up the note and flush it down the toilet. It's dangerous to keep the note around. You never know when it may be read by another person. I wash my hands at the kitchen sink with Dettol and set about to prepare my dinner. Once I set the rice to cook, I sit at the kitchen table to wait.
Outside the flat, it's evening, the sky slowly darkening. It looks like that day at the Botanic Gardens – a distant, different time – and the muddling scenes blend into one another, overlapping. Something in the remembrance of the event, or maybe in the hypnotic spread of light and colours in the sky, opens up a dark pit in me, leaving me at the mercy of my memories. I picture my wife's back, her shoulders moving under her white blouse with each stroke of the paintbrush. I used to love to kiss this part of her body, to trace the ridges of her landscape. How she has responded to me then – the deep breaths, the sensuous tilt of her head, the perspiration and body heat rising from her body. It makes me ache, madly – a hollow pain ripping me to shreds – to know she may never do this for me again, that I have already lost her, long before I even realised it. The rice cooker clicks and the rice is cooked, releasing clouds of steam. I halt the train-wreck of thoughts and return to the immediate task of my dinner preparation.
After dinner, I go into the bedroom and sit beside my wife. I don't feel up to any conversation tonight, my mind still troubled with the earlier thoughts. I stroke my wife's hand, touching the wedding ring on her finger. Her hand is pliable, unresponsive. I dig my fingers into her skin, making tiny crescent grooves that disappear after a few seconds; I dig deeper, wanting to break the surface of it, to draw blood.
Then I release her hand. I lift her head and bring her face to me. I run my tongue along the contours of her lips, her nose, her eyebrows, tasting her, filling my mouth with every part of her. I kiss and bite and lick, edging her body to submission. She yields up nothing, only flesh, a hollow shell. My throat suddenly chokes; I dropped my wife back on the bed; my mind snaps. I run into the kitchen and open the fridge. I dig through the pile of body parts and finally find what I'm looking for: a pair of hands. I remove them from the storage bag; the fingers are frozen stiff, curling inward, a claw-like grip. I bring them back to my wife.
'This is what you want, right?' I scream into my wife's face, shoving the severed hands at her. I move the cold hard fingers across her face, the dead fingers of her lover. I move them down her body, to her breasts, her stomach, her crotch. I watch her face; her lips part ever so slightly. I throw the pair of hands at the wall, a heavy thud resounding in the quiet room. I turn away from my wife and stand at the window, looking out. Night has fallen, the sky a deep shade of ink-blue and down below on the streets, the rich golden glow of streetlamps. Everything – the moving cars, the human activities, the flight of birds – seems unreal, small and insignificant, from high above.
Once the darkness ebbs away, I pick up the hands and bring them back to the kitchen. They are starting to thaw, softening. I put them back into the freezer compartment of the fridge. I catch the sight of my wife's lover's head – the half-shut sleepy eyelids, the straight line of his mouth – behind the frosted, translucent storage bag, and push it to the back of freezer, behind the bags of limbs, arms and chopped up torso.
I slip into the bed and lie beside my wife. I can feel the warmth of her body, frail and weak. I place my head on her chest, listening to the secret sounds of her interior, echoing with life. I wish to slip in, to go straight into the heart of her. She lets out a sigh. I hold my breath. But there's nothing more. I hold her hand to me, and I put my weeping face into her palm. My sleeping wife, the woman I love – I almost lost her once, but now I have her, beside me, and I'll never let her out of my sight. She will never leave me again, not even when she wakes up and realises what I have done for her, how I have taken care of her, how I have loved her. I bring my body closer to her, to keep her warm and tight in my grip. Nothing, not even the threat of the darkness that lies around us, is able to separate us, from this moment, from this very night, as long as we hold onto each other like this.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011