By Adeline Siow
Eloise was unhappy. There was no single reason that she could blame for her malaise, no one thing that she could pinpoint that was bothering her. Her career was bland, but reassuringly so, all day long she sat in the HR department punching in numbers, sometimes quite ridiculously astronomical numbers that she would never hope of earning in her lifetime, but that was not why she felt a curious lack of happiness. On the contrary, she quite liked its predictable mundane nature, how the numbers would add up neatly, how she sat in the corner cubicle (a hard-won privilege, a reward, she felt, for her five years of loyalty to the company), how she could end work at 6.35pm every day, exactly 5 minutes after her boss left, how after the minor tussle with the evening crowd, she could be home to watch the 7.30pm Korean show on the Chinese channel.
She pondered the source of her unhappiness for a full minute. It was 2.35pm on a Thursday afternoon. It wasn't that she lacked anything, did she? She had just gone clothes shopping on Wednesday, with her colleagues – the sometimes annoyingly chatty Celine, who thought that since she got married earlier at 22 that she knew everything there was to know about life; and the ever-fawning, ever-admiring Geraldine, who believed wholeheartedly in everything that Celine said. Which is why she sometimes ended up with very unfortunate clothing choices. The neon orange shift dress that Geraldine picked out did not suit her portly figure quite as well as Celine promised, and it was way too translucent to wear to the office, or anywhere decent in public, really. But she had not said anything because Geraldine had come out from the dressing room with the biggest smile on her face, with such a lightness in her step when she twirled it around, that it had made it easier for her to ignore the gaudy pattern, had made it easier for her to say nothing but just smile and nod. She could hardly remember what she had bought herself – it was still in its paper package at the foot of her closet, wrapped neatly with a plastic pink bow on it.
The minute passed and still she had not figured out exactly why. It was vaguely displeasing, that nagging feeling that something, somewhere was not right, but she had numbers to crunch and contracts to print, and her search for unhappiness was sadly unfulfilled.
So she tried again, that night, at dinner. Seated across her was her boyfriend, studiedly serious in his brown wire-frame glasses, his left eyelid twitching sporadically. That was a habit, left over from childhood, one that she used to find endearing, but now she found quite distracting, as its rapid movements made it hard for her to speak about anything that required a certain gravitas. He was deeply engrossed in the menu, although Eloise wondered why he bothered, since he was bound to order the same things he always did anyway.
She cleared her throat. "I'm unhappy," she said.
Her boyfriend showed a deep fascination with the kitschy Japanese menu. It was hardly even authentic anyway, this place with its fake dusty sakura blossoms and its waitresses who mangled every bit of Japanese that they tried to speak. He did not seem to have heard her.
She sighed. "Excuse me," she said, rapping her clenched fist on the wooden-laminated table. "I said, I'm unhappy."
Her boyfriend looked up at her, peering over his spectacles. His hair was slightly greasy after a whole day of work.
"Yes," he said. "I understand. This place has a pretty poor selection, doesn't it?"
She stared at him with the slightest twinge of exasperation. "The menu is fine. Anyway you know what we are going to end up eating anyway, you'll order the barbequed fish and I the chicken with egg on rice, and we'll end up sharing a dessert, probably the green tea ice-cream because you have no particular opinion on desserts anyway."
Her voice was slightly louder than usual, and attracted disapproving stares from the people who were crammed into the tables that were nearer to them. The waitress, as if sensing that this was indeed the best time to interrupt, wedged herself in between them.
Her boyfriend looked up and said "Oh. Um…one barbequed fish set. And one chicken with egg and rice. And two green teas."
Eloise sat and fiddled impatiently with the toothpick holder while waiting for the nosey waitress to leave before speaking.
"It's not the menu. It's not the fact that I know exactly what we are going to eat. It's just that today, when I was at work, I suddenly realised I was unhappy."
Her boyfriend nodded. "It was Cathy again, wasn't it? Why? Did she show you some designer bag that her husband got her from Paris?"
Eloise shook her head as she corrected him. "Celine. But it's not that. Although she did show us some limited edition LV bracelet that is only available in Europe that her husband got for her. It's just that…" and here she paused, because she wasn't quite sure herself. "It's just that, the thought that I was unhappy came into my head, and I couldn't figure out why. That's what's driving me nuts."
Her boyfriend looked at her. "A thought?" He exhaled now, noisily. "Well then, there's nothing I can do…nothing I can buy…not like there's a vacuum cleaner of the mind that I could use to suck that thought out of your head, is there?" He laughed at what he thought was his rather witty reply.
Eloise looked at him, at the eye bags that had been accumulating under his eyes (both twitchy and un-twitchy), at his crinkled smile, and in a small voice said "I guess you're right."
And so it was that they left the topic of unhappiness there, as they finished their dinner of fish and chicken in a comfortable silence. By dessert time, Eloise was feeling slightly calmer as she spooned the familiar sweet taste of the green tea ice cream into her mouth and down her throat. She imagined its sweetness slowly working its way through her entire body. Unhappiness would let her alone then, and life would then be beautifully predictable once again.
As they left the restaurant, the heavy downpour that splashed at their feet made for an impossibly long taxi queue. "Let's run," her boyfriend said, as he took her hand and they skipped along the glistening pavements to the train station like two guilty kids making a quick dash from school. Her boyfriend looked back then, and caught the slightest glimpse of a smile on her face. He stopped, the two of them under the pouring rain, a street away from shelter. "There, happiness." He said as he cupped her cheek gently. She smiled back at him tenderly, not wanting to break his illusion.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012