It's Not Valid
By Daryl Qilin Yam
It's not valid.
What? I ask. What do you mean?
I hear the three words as though he had been shouting through a glass pane, and I was lip-reading: it'snotvalid. I can see his mouth moving and forming the words, and the eyes, trying to send me the message without having to speak at all, and I can hear the words — can I? — but there is something about the three words I can't understand, can't believe.
It's not valid?
The insurance agent simply looks at me. Then he smiles. It is a smile trained to be sympathetic, clinical, designed to soften the blow; Alex's psychiatrist had the exact same smile. I know I won't be able to understand the words, the words he had just said. I know I'd find them morbid, heartless, incredulous, as though I hadn't expected it. But somehow, I also know what he will say next. The gist of it.
If you commit suicide within the first year, the agent says, you won't be covered. He keeps on smiling. Are you aware of this? Were you informed?
Y—, I try saying. Yes.
The smile grows even wider. Outside the café just behind my workplace, the traffic continues to flash past in the afternoon light. Somehow, the showing of no teeth, the stretching of cheeks, the way his upper lip thins out while the fat of his lower lip steadily shows: all of it becomes drowned in the tumbling of tyres, the wailing of horns, the dashing of vehicles. As though he were made of glass, and his smile, too, glints in the light.
I'm glad this is the case, he says.
I try nodding instead of blinking, this time. He fingers the edge of his cup.
I'm sorry for your loss.
I am sorry for my loss too. Many people are as well, for my loss, many of my friends and Alex's friends are sorry for me. Even up till now, with his wake, procession and cremation over, I do not know if Alex has family or not; none of them had attended any of the three, I believe. But I also believe they'd feel sorry for me as well, and for each other.
My mother thinks I was foolish for staying with a man like Alex. She considered (considers?) him dangerous. I don't talk to my brother anymore.
But I am sorrier for myself than the rest of them. My sorriness will be bigger, it will always be bigger, and it will be directed all towards myself. Because all I had were Alex and his many voices in their many places, whether they unsettled me or not. And all Alex had was me. Only now do I realise the mistake we made.
I do not know if he loved me. I do not know if he would care for me the same way I did for him, if he had been the healthy one in our relationship. But he needed me. Was loving the same as needing? Was it as lasting, as necessary? That I wouldn't know as well.
My sorriness will be greater, bigger, more vast. More physical, more tangible. I feed it like I how I fed Alex, every night at ten, his supper. I will indulge this sorriness, nurture it, as though Alex were somehow still alive.
Thank you for coming, then, I manage to say. I'm sorry if I've caused you any trouble.
It's okay, he tells me. I work close by as well.
This time his face relaxes; I can even see his teeth. This time his smile is one of relief. It almost appears as a grin. We make cordial conversation: everything about my job, nothing about his. He then pays for our coffee. We leave.
Thank you for coming.
I push back my chair, and sit. It wasn't too hard to find him when I had entered the restaurant.
No problem, I tell him. I'm glad we're doing this.
It's the insurance agent, from a week ago.
The agent before him had retired, just a few days before Alex chose his time of death. I recall Mrs Kaan being a woman I had to be rather wary of: she was remarkably shrewd, and looked the part, and whenever she made her annual visit to our house, my heart thumped with the fear that she may pick up the odour of the sweat of my palms, the scent of Alex's illness, which we didn't wish to disclose.
Our intention, basically, was for Alex to remain qualified for the premium.
This new insurance agent, Mr Wong — or, I should say, Thomas — stepped into the picture when the insurance company received notification of Alex's death. I had faxed Mrs Kaan the police report. She then handed it over to her successor, Thomas. I then arranged for the both of us to discuss the matter of Alex's death over an afternoon cup of coffee.
When Thomas left, I thought: that was that. No more Alex, no more insurance to settle, no will. Only the smashed remains in our apartment, and the unmistakable perspiration, clinging to our furniture.
He then gave me a call. There his name flashed, across the screen.
… Mr Wong?
Hello. Are you Sam? Alex Lim's next-of-kin?
Yes. But no longer.
I'm sorry, of course. You can call me Thomas, by the way.
Why are you calling, Thomas?
There's something I need to discuss with you.
But Alex is no longer around.
Are you trying to sell me insurance?
There's a restaurant. Right behind the café.
That's the one.
What about it?
Would you like to have dinner with me?
I'm sorry. Is — is this a bad time?
Of course it is. Alex died. Every day is a bad time.
… I'm sorry.
… shall I call another time? Perhaps never?
No. No. It's okay. I should be the one apologizing. So what about dinner, again?
They have free soups on Tuesdays.
I see. This can't be about business, can it.
We can pretend it's business. We should.
You ask me out. Right after Alex died.
You can decline if you want to, I'll underst—
Is this really happening?
Were you calling, expecting me to say no?
Goodness, I tell him, poring over the menu. They do have free soups on Tuesdays.
Thomas does a half-laugh, half-smile, and looks at me like I'm ten-years-old, and I've made some kind of mistake on purpose. The smile now is soft now, mouldable, like wet clay. And yet you chose to come on a Wednesday.
I look up from the menu. I match his look of mock-incredulity with something I haven't tried in a long while, like playfulness, I think. Hopefully my night with him will be likewise.
I told you, I replied coolly. I have to teach on Tuesday nights.
Thomas lives in one of the private, quieter parts of Orchard, not that I knew there were any to begin with. Thomas, from what I've been gathering, is only a few years older than me, which makes him rather young in the industry. Apparently he had been groomed and poised to take over Mrs Kaan's position in the insurance company the moment she left it. He was her protégé. Everything was planned. One wonders if they are somehow related.
Does the place shock you? he asks.
I step out of the car. At once I realise that I've been staring at the multiple windows above me, and the warm amber glows they emanate, with their shifting shadows and fluttering curtains. At some corner, a fountain is busy splashing away, creating this constant wave of sound. I wipe away my disbelief and replace it with nonchalance, keeping it the way it should be.
Alex was richer.
That I know.
After what seemed like an hour of pursed lips, locked lips, warm, cupping lips, Thomas comes. He spasms, and his groin almost seems to grow even larger when it twitches, his body spasming. His eyes are shut, he shouts out gibberish, and sweat rolls down his face, his neck, his chest. The veins on his arms pop out, and I almost have a fleeting image of Alex. It is strange, I know, not to mention a little incorrect: Alex and I hadn't made love in the last year of his life.
We held each other to sleep.
He steps into the shower with me, holds me from behind. I can feel the warm droplets slide down between us.
Shall we do this again? he asks.
I don't know, I say.
He is in the midst of kissing down my neck. Why? He reaches my shoulders.
I turn my head to look at him. He stops kissing, he blinks. In the heat of the mist of the shower, his face is almost entirely shrouded. His eyes and lips, lost in the gentle pitter-patter of what could very well be rain.
I forgot, he says. Alex.
I don't reply. It's not that I'm at a loss for words. There is just nothing left to say.
It's too early, he says. I raised my hopes too high.
He tightens his arms around my waist. I pull him even closer.
Did you have a good time? At least?
I tried nodding. I try. Soon, he starts to sound like a boy, and I end up nuzzling him back, under his chin, his jaw, his throat. I can feel him smiling, the jaw shifting, barely. This time, he is sad, he is happy. He is both, and he means it.
Yes, I whisper, through my kisses. I'm sorry.
I'm an invalid.
That was what Alex said, when I found him.
It was a Tuesday night. When I drove back home from the university, it was already ten past nine. I did not find Alex immediately: when I unlocked the front door to our apartment, none of the lights were on. I fumbled for the switch, probably expecting Alex to be asleep on the couch, the carpet, a random cushion. But he wasn't.
Normally he'd be watching the television, eating his cereal and smiling at the Channel 8 programmes. Sometimes he'd be silent, and tears would fall down his face, and with a piece of tissue paper I'd wipe them away, dabbing the side of his face, and he would tell me how he could feel the bullets go through his chest, his arm, through the ear, between his eyes, wherever the person on the television had been shot. Or that he knew how it felt to be on a one-way shouting match, or to have cold tea trickling down his face and wetting the collar of his shirt. He knew the phrase, wo bu gan xin, and wu fa wu tian. On particularly bad days he would argue with the television. Or he'd be in the kitchen, kneeling on a chair, looking at the jar of sugar, the freezer, the locked shelf with the glasses.
For a second, I did not understand.
Alex? I asked. His head turned towards me, as though he were underwater.
I'm an invalid, Sam.
That's what he said. That I knew, all too well, I knew what the words meant. I had been living in accordance to them for many years. But I did not know what he was doing.
What are you doing, Alex? I asked. I couldn't move, I couldn't do anything but watch and see what he would do next. It made no sense, but somehow, I felt that if I moved, he would move too, as though something physical, something tangible, had been placed between our bodies, a fixed distance of something. I felt that if I moved forwards, that something would push Alex off the ledge and I'd never see him again.
What are you doing there? I repeated myself.
Alex continued to look at me, his eyes red, his cheeks moist. He was rather handsome, with a pale complexion, and his eyes, deep-set and always searching for something. But this time he looked ashen, and his eyes were fixed on me.
I watched the TV today, Sam.
I tried smiling, as though we were having a normal conversation. You did?
I did, Sam. His lower lip trembled. It was so sad.
What happened, Alex?
He smiled. As though in return.
I've not been outside for a long time, Sam.
I — I'm sorry about that, I tried saying. You kn—
I'm an invalid, Sam.
I'm an invalid—
And then I realised that Alex wasn't intending to jump, after all. I realised how the window wasn't pushed open, for him to sit on the ledge. It was smashed open. In the hand that hung out in the arm, his palm ten storeys above the pavement, it held a shard of glass. Down the wall gleamed lines of red. On the floor, a pool.
His eyes fluttered. Then he slid off the ledge, as though he were boneless; as though he were filled with air, and voices with no faces were telling him to lean out instead of in. And as he did so, his arms flailed in a way I imagined he had been waving goodbye. Which explains why, while standing in the kitchen and staring at the window, I had raised my hand, and waved back.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012