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Clearly, she’d rather not return. She still has friends there, some of whom were generous enough to pay for movers to transport her belongings back: two luggage bags filled with clothes, a minifridge, a lava lamp, a Pushkin cat plushie, portable cube-speakers, folders, and variously sized boxes of gifts she doesn’t have the heart to throw away. Living in the university hostel ruined my sister’s health, and now she’s back with more stuff than she left with three years ago. Now her hair has a smell—not unlike the smell of warm eggs soaked in mayonnaise—and every day we find loose strands scattered around the house, especially by the corner next to the TV cabinet, which she has turned into her personal storage space.
We’re shocked when she tells us her appendix had been removed. She shows us the scar and adds that she can no longer stomach crustaceans. She says she has adopted a Christian name—Chris—to aid the non-Chinese. As for the abrasions she sports on both kneecaps, she doesn’t elaborate. The abrasions never seem to heal, even though we count that she sleeps an average of fourteen hours a day. We’ve reminded her time and again to rinse her wounds with iodine solution, but she never listens. Twice a week, usually right after dinner, she does calisthenics. And right after her workout, she lies prone on the sofa and taps away at her phone for hours instead of taking a shower.
Makeup’s her saviour, she says. She needs it to conceal her eye bags. She’s proud, and chock-full of confidence, but accompanying that is much, much casual use of foul language. She’s not shy to point out that this is what makes her stand out from other girls—she has started dating this dashing, strapping twenty-five year-old from a well-to-do family; a fellow classmate who rides fast motorcycles and no doubt does the occasional bicep curl. This boyfriend of hers is very tall, at least two heads taller than her. Because he is so much taller, he has to position his hand down low to give her high-fives. We assume they’ve already had sex, seeing how casually she farts and burps in his presence, nights when he comes over for dinner. She makes no apology for this. She also doesn’t see a problem with eating her meals at irregular hours or making us wait until she’s hungry enough before dinner can be served. Still, we’re delighted to see her.
At the moment, she’s looking for a job. She hunts for one on her MacBook, mostly during the dark wee hours when the weather is cooler, and everyone in the house is asleep. She devotes hours to perfecting her portfolio and résumé while she snacks in bed. Most nights, she washes her hair right before she sleeps, sometimes falling asleep with her hair wet, her fingers wrapped around her phone, and the lights on. She’s weak when it comes to potato chips. And she admits that she can no longer read books. Or rather, any reading she does has to be done on a screen. She also claims to leave her contact lenses in when she sleeps—“Seriously?” is our reply to that and to the used sanitary napkins accumulated in her wastebasket, which give her room a smell. There are other things we find: uncapped milk-tea bottles, half-eaten bags of mildly-salted Lays, long-expired Haribo gummy bears, and ants. Once, we found a cockroach nesting in her makeup kit.
We pull our blankets over our heads when we hear her digging for food in the kitchen—to resist checking the clock. And when we look through the cabinets the following morning, we picture the item we’re searching for moving down her digestive tract. The smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke on her breath makes us wonder if we should email her medical insurance company to revise her health records.
Once, we heard her scurry to the bathroom to throw up in the sink: Blaargh! We swallowed and drew extreme conclusions in our heads. Later, Chris saw our faces and grinned; she pointed to the bad eggs on the tray inside the fridge. So we threw out the eggs and filed a complaint with the supermarket. When the dust had settled, we told her to take a shower. But she said she would rather take one at night.
Chris doesn’t shower as often as we think she does, as often as we think she should. When she does, she takes her phone into the bathroom. And we hear her favourite sitcoms over the sound of running water from the other side of the door. Some Fridays her boyfriend stays over. He, too, showers late, slams the bathroom door when it’s his turn, and wakes everyone up. We can hear them watching silly shows in the bedroom, behind closed doors. Something is always going on in the night. And in the day, we have deliverymen leaving parcels outside our door. When nobody is looking, I shake the boxes and wonder to myself: Sex toys? Fishnets? Edible panties?
This boyfriend of hers came out of nowhere, and he’s different from the men in our family. The men in our family are soft-spoken and sensitive. He speaks his mind, and thus far, he hasn’t brought us gifts for the hospitality we’ve extended to him. Wine? Nougats? Strawberries? Where are his manners? The men in our house also blush more often than we’d like to admit. We’re afraid to look people in the eyes when we realise that we’ve somehow accidentally uttered an unkind word. We didn’t voice our displeasure the time he took apart our Toshiba microwave oven or our Phillips Viva Collection juicer after he’d insisted that he was good at fixing things.
The men in our home are also strict about keeping up routines. We pick up positive habits very quickly. Flossing, for instance. Reading the newspaper. Two hard-boiled eggs and a glass of celery juice for breakfast. We offered the boyfriend breakfast once, but he doesn’t have a habit of eating early in the morning. Does he then say bye-bye before hanging up the phone? We note that he doesn’t wash his cup after use. The men in our family are also self-conscious of our bodies. That’s not to say we hate ourselves; however, we don’t like to be reminded of the too-many moles on our back, or our kneecaps tiny like golf balls, or our thighs brittle like toothpicks, or our inability to grow a beard. So when the boyfriend joins us outside for dinner, say, at a coffee shop, he rarely gets mistaken for a ‘son’ of the family.
Also, he’s too good looking and we find it difficult to trust him. In fact, we’re afraid of him. He carries around a jet-black motorcycle helmet and speaks with an unidentifiable accent. He tells us that his grandmother’s Portuguese, that he has six older brothers, and that his parents run a canning factory. They live in a four-storey bungalow with two maids, a personal bathroom in every bedroom. Because his family is wealthy, it’s hard to know if he can be serious about anything. Once he gave away fifty dollars to a woman who approached us at the coffee shop, who drew dollar signs in the air. She’d claimed deafness in one ear.
“So which ear was it?” we asked him later.
We rub our hands together and count the days till he messes up; we think he might cheat on Chris. So we stock up ice-cream in the fridge. In the meantime, we pretend everything’s swell and continue to invite him over for dinner, extend our hospitality, smile and ask him about his day. We don’t say a word about the shaving razor he parks in our bathroom. Where the hell’s the toothbrush?
We might seem harsh, but we think Chris deserves better. So what if he’s the handsome heir to a multi-million dollar company? If you consider what we value: every member of our family knows how to patch a hole in a pair of trousers, and we greet our neighbours in the lift. Plus, we do not slouch. We make our beds in the morning, and we set our watches and clocks to run ten minutes ahead so we’re never late for our appointments. We’ve observed none of these intangibles in the boyfriend and, come to think of it now, there’s no reason why we should feel inferior to him.
We’ve lost track of how long this has been going on. But we’ve noticed our utility bills costing more and our toilet rolls depleting faster than usual—these changes have been tolerated. It seems that the boyfriend enjoys squeezing with us in our tiny apartment—he has practically moved in. He and Chris now share a blanket, and a savings account. They’ve both found jobs in the same office, and they feel optimistic about the future—they leave for work together. Chris uses a smaller, white motorcycle helmet. And we shake our heads when we see them leave the house at nine, holding hands. Work, to our knowledge, starts at nine. We assume they speed, and so we expect a call from the hospital someday. But they look so happy, even as Chris’s health continues to deteriorate. Her sinuses have grown worse; she blows her nose until it bleeds.
“Leave him,” we want to say to her.
But we can’t. It’s too late.
The thing is, several months ago, Chris suffered from a heat rash and had to scrub her back with sea salt; the boyfriend volunteered.
He whistled Friends when he massaged Chris’s shoulders in the living room. “You’re hard as a rock,” he said to her.
I was sitting by the dining table. He caught me rolling my eyes.
I quickly looked away.
I couldn’t sleep after that, and the next morning, I left the bed with a fever. In the bathroom, I spat greenish phlegm into the sink. I managed to put the right amount of toothpaste on the bristles but did a poor job cleaning my teeth since I could hardly move my arms; my joints were aching.
I needed breakfast.
So I walked into the kitchen and stared at the new eggs that sat in the fridge, uncooked. And when I finally gathered enough strength to look for the pot, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was the boyfriend.
“It’s broken,” he said to me. “It just fell out of my hand, you know? Last night. Chris was hungry.”
“I need my eggs,” I said, wanting very much to punch him in the face.
I went to lie down on the sofa instead. I closed my eyes. Then I heard the microwave oven beeping.
“What are you doing?” I said, propping myself up.
“Is three enough?” I heard him say from the kitchen. I was confused.
Did I know the eggs would explode, melt his beautiful face, and rob him an eye?
The thing is, I wouldn’t have touched the eggs myself.
Chris wasn’t pleased, of course. She cried for nights and took unpaid leave from work and served her time by his bedside. She even quit smoking so her fingers wouldn’t stink when he let her touch his face.
At first, we wanted to offer him money. But he said he wanted a hug instead. We thought it was the anesthetics, but then he spread his arms out, and he got all emotional and told us that we’re the closest he has ever had to a family.
We smiled and sighed—out of relief, knowing in our hearts that there wouldn’t be a lawsuit, bankruptcy.
But I look at him now: he wears an eye-patch; he looks just like a—no, I’m not going to say it. This’s it. We’ve decided never to speak of this again. We’ll go on as if nothing ever happened. And we won’t talk about how he continues to ride a motorcycle with Chris sitting close behind and hugging him tight to herself. How, with the scars on his face, he still manages to grow a beard.
Marcus Ong Kah Ho / 王家豪 is a writer and teacher from Singapore. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, Meetinghouse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Guesthouse, Newfound, Going Down Swinging, and the anthology Momaya Short Story Review. Website: www.marcusongkh.com