Thank God for Sade
BY MARCUS ONG KAH HO
Now the door was wide open, and Smooth Operator was looping over two cube speakers in the living room, why didn’t she first check the peephole? Si-Ling knew what the postman must be thinking: How’s it possible a pretty girl like her to have such disgraceful taste in music?
Music was Freddy’s idea, she wanted to say. What Freddy had wanted, what he was perhaps trying to do, was to put a little romance back into sex. He’d taken her head in his hands and said, We’re not animals, and kissed her on the mouth. Lying in bed, Si-Ling hadn’t expected saxophones. And what it reminded her of were those incredibly satisfying farts that only came once in a blue moon. She had been watching the ceiling fan whir slowly above her, waiting for Freddy, pinching the skin between her fingers, when she felt him climb into bed. He’d hummed with the music and held her close, and then closer. And she could tell his fingernails were trimmed.
It’s not like she had a choice, she wished to say to the postman. The song is trash. There. But she couldn’t have said that. Who knows how long he’d been planning this? She’d been observing Freddy ever since they’d gotten together, hanging out with him and his friends at the coffee shop, chain-smoking. She’d noticed that his friends were such wet blankets; the moment Freddy talked ambition, say, starting an online obituary service (like Facebook for the dead), they’d be like, What shit he talking about? Freddy hadn’t had a job in six years. Didn’t own insurance policies like all big boys should. Couldn’t choose between a year-end holiday to Europe and a curved-screen TV. They weren’t talking about a koi pond or Maserati, just the fundamental basics, you know?
Maybe what she was trying to explain to the postman was that Freddy’s not perfect, though perfect enough in her eyes. Maybe people in love don’t have to love the same music. In other words, no one should fault her if she didn’t find a song romantic or blame her for not catching any of its lyrics even with her eyes shut.
Who knew the first time would hurt so much?
Don’t beg, don’t beg, she’d kept saying to herself as she grabbed for the sheets. Begging would mean she was weak. People would start jerking her around, treating her like she’s stupid, easy meat. Or was that already the case? Eugenia. Faizah. Gee Gee. Amoleka. Anastasia. All were supposed to show up for her birthday barbecue but did not. First, they stuck to her like flies, then, when a young, kind teacher showed up, elegant and charming, suddenly everyone’s hardworking? Suddenly she’s bad company?
And her father? Was she supposed to defend him?
For the barbecue, he’d given her fifty dollars instead of three hundred like he’d promised, when the plan was to spend a third and then hand the rest over to Freddy for safe keeping. Freddy had ignored her texts for two days, and her stomach had howled non-stop because she couldn’t eat. She had to beg and beg him to accept her apology. After that, she swore never to be made weak again. Only for it to happen again in bed.
Si-Ling tried to smooth her face.
But the postman was souring up her mouth. No hair, big shoulders, big nose, and dark purple lips. Sweat on his chin, red and swollen from mosquito bites. She gagged. What’s that smell? It was more than just cigarette smoke. Some old guys have it. She tried to recall if her father…and felt faint. If it’d been her father, Freddy would’ve been dead. Chopped to pieces.
From the bedroom, Freddy wanted to know who was at the door.
She noticed the postman looking down at his own shoes when she heard Freddy’s voice. Freddy was shouting over the saxophone solo—he’s got the feels for fruits.
Celine! Do you still have your cigarettes?
The postman looked up, and Si-Ling wondered if he was the goody-goody type who thinks the law’s the law, or if he was an angel of mercy who offered second chances? She considered his dark skin and large hairless head gleaming with sweat. She saw the Marlboros sticking out of his breast pocket and lowered her eyes.
Sorry, she whispered. She had nothing more to offer.
The postman parted his lips.
For a moment, it seemed as though he was about to utter something harsh, and Si-Ling dropped her head. Three troublesome years of hiding her smoking from her parents. All that teeth-brushing, tongue-scraping, soaking her fingers in citrus juice each time before she entered the house—and this was how they’d find out? When all she wanted was to be left alone? Why couldn’t people get that she—one day—had simply stopped liking school? Leave it at that? Freddy said it was the happiest he’d ever felt. And considering how he’d clenched and jerked and groaned on top of her earlier, then collapsed and chuckled into the pillow, well, then quitting school must be pretty potent, some mind-blowing shit.
Your teacher is calling again! Freddy shouted.
Keat Kun wondered if there was a hidden camera somewhere. He stared at the girl, taking it all in—her Snoopy T-shirt, the lack of a bra, no pants. It wasn’t the first time on his postal route that the door had swung open, and there before him stood a human person of the opposite gender, hardly dressed. Almost always ravishing, their beauty distorted his face, split his head in the subtlest of ways. On this particular occasion, however, this particular one was a tad too young—she was as young as his niece.
He tried picturing his niece in his head, but somehow, shockingly, drew a blank. And all of a sudden, he was anxious for her.
Was his niece happy? The poor girl never got to say goodbye.
Whisked away at six—the decision was not to be questioned—for a New Zealand passport. It was a sadistic move against the child; the girl had friends here. If she were his own, he would never have deprived her the chance to grow up here, as he did, in the world’s wealthiest island-city, home to the world’s best airport. Now the girl rambled in a British accent and would say cheerio before she put down the phone. It was off-putting, incongruent, but since her family was well-off, Keat Kun thought it suited her. Why should it matter that the money had come from three short years in illegal bookmaking? Often though, Keat Kun would shout obscenities at himself at the thought of his brother, so well-off now that he gave up everything to wake up on a farm, an intense landscape of green hills, and kill hours tending sheep. From his brother’s well-wishing cards, he’d learned that life over in New Zealand was very slow. So slow that you started gaining weight; worryingly, everyone whom Keat Kun had ever loved was now obese. Whereas down here, Keat Kun reported back, things were still the same. Their dear mother still had osteoporosis; she was still skin and bones. Keat Kun still brisk-walked everywhere, even at home. On the train home from work, he would count the doors and camp by the one closest to the escalator so that he’d be the first to exit the station platform. Everything was rushed. That was why his clothes always smelled of sweat.
He was sweating now.
He was feverish.
He knew the girl was young. Where he had to look was at the calves, the knees: that was where a person’s age showed.
But her chest!
Kun, you stare and stare at the beer for what? It won’t make you feel better. Only make you more thirsty.
He’d tried explaining to his friends his reason for his newfound sobriety, employing only the simplest of terms. But they accused him of being facetious. They couldn’t wrap their heads around how a single, middle-aged man, who possessed a degree in Hospitality Management yet somehow delivered mail on a three-wheeled motorcycle, could ever conjure up a reason to quit drinking. Tears came whenever he thought about this: that it’d taken forty years and a flabbergasted prostitute staring down at his bare, itching body to tell him that, Hey mister, I think you allergic to drinks.
The girl’s expression was impossible to interpret.
If he were to guess, she was shy.
The last time, when thrust into a similar situation, it was the same. That person had donned some sort of costume, like lingerie. But lo and behold, she was merely acting shy. He’d almost developed froth in his mouth when she suddenly, daringly and admirably, breathed down his collar, revealing what she had in mind. Back then, he still had his hair.
Perks of being a postman, his friends said.
Beginner’s luck, they teased.
Keat Kun no longer remembered the exact address or what that person had looked like. Though he did remember that she seemed to have grown prettier over the years. Sometimes she had long hair, other times short. What stayed constant was the can of warm Coke offered to him. The woman was very nice. He’d expected praise from his friends, applause but faced ridicule instead, questions about his manhood for turning down a sexual favour. That he was mentally unsound, his friends had guessed for some time.
She was recording.
So what? Is that a crime?
It is, actually.
Since when is sucking dick illegal?
What if the video ended up online?
His friends laughed.
Were people that wicked? People swore he had the most fabulous job on earth. But Keat Kun disagreed. Odds were, the same would never happen again. For was it not his late father, a strait-laced water-bottle salesman for Tupperware, who’d once said that one must not expect a good thing to happen miraculously again simply because it’d happened once, paraphrasing a Chinese proverb that taught a man never to go on waiting under a tree for a second rabbit to collide with the trunk? Because a man would starve, the proverb warned. Keat Kun knew he had to go out there and buy the rabbit; he had to go out there and work and earn the rabbit. And most days, Keat Kun learned, were uneventful, dreadful even, as he slowly, bit by bit saved up for the rabbit. He would punch out and fiddle with Tinder on his way home. He would text as wittily, as patiently, and as hopefully as his tired brain would allow, and then a soft smile would turn up on his face when someone finally agreed to go out with him. But always they’d want to know what he did for a living after the food and wine were served, and then they’d panic, and he’d have to endure them as they tried to be polite. Keat Kun had to watch them picture him in his blue cap and blue jumpsuit in their minds. It was a blue that he abhorred. It wasn’t blue like the blue of the police force. But blue like the patient gown he’d worn the time he was admitted for landing awkwardly in the canal and snapping his fibula in two places because some coward had set his Rottweilers on him after accusing him of ogling at the lady of the house.
Later, his insurance claims were denied, scuppering his plans to visit New Zealand. Because did he or did he not stare at the woman to a point where she began to fear for her safety? Lying with morphine in his veins, he’d wondered what it’d be like to shear a sheep, and wondered why none of his friends had come to visit. His elderly mother was too feeble. It was wiser, he’d thought, to save the cab fare for lottery tickets, so that if she ever won, that would be her funeral expenses covered, and, with her approval, he might consider using the leftover to order an eighteen-year-old bride from Vietnam, some villager-type who didn’t speak any English, and so would only nod and look at the floor no matter what he uttered, because he was so sick of going on Tinder dates and considering himself creepy when it came to women, and being afraid they would find him creepy, too, the moment he opened his mouth, and then having to seem aloof in the cab sending them back home before hailing another to those cheap cheap brothels in Geylang because there was nothing more he hated than having blue balls. But why, why did everything have to be about sex all the time? He swore sex wasn’t on his mind earlier: in the lift, he was thinking about what to have for lunch and whether to deposit money in the bank later that evening.
He heard a voice.
It sounded like a wife beater’s.
Cigarettes? The girl was too young. She wouldn’t want to be coughing and needing to keep stepping outside for a puff while studying for a crucial, life-defining exam. Fuck, no. As her elder, and so as one whose opinion must matter to some degree, he should warn her of smoking’s dangers. If only someone had done the same for him back in the day. The money he’d have saved; the Rolexes he’d have bought. He would have said it to his niece. It’s the least he could do. Tell the girl to stay off drugs. Drink coffee instead. Another thing. His niece shouldn’t be dressed like that, without any pants, and simply, casually swinging the door open for some stranger who could turn out to be some big pervert or psychotic—not that all postmen were perverts and psychos. It was only that there were very cold and very wicked people out there in the world, he knew, like some of his friends—whose wives he pitied—who may or may not someday resort to physical violence, but would definitely, he foresaw, wolf-whistle or utter extremely crude and unsavoury remarks, propositions, and then claim to be only joking. These men were the black sheep, the rotten pinkies of an otherwise healthy limb, who made everything uncomfortable for everyone, inconveniencing everybody, making it hard for people to trust, to respect, to open up, to accept, to love—he must say something to this girl. He would’ve said something already if it wasn’t for the girl suddenly apologising. And then smiling. Shouldn’t he be the one apologising?
For taking bloody forever to hand over the parcel.
Si-Ling received the parcel with both hands and signed her name on the postman’s greasy iPad. She wished him a good day and shut the door. Then she wondered if she should have given him a tip or at least an ice-cold drink. The man looked tired.
The bitch hung up, Freddy shouted.
Si-Ling chucked the parcel next to the Styrofoam box mountain looking to collapse, and adjusted her glasses. She wondered why the foot reflexology massager had been left running. There were her father’s magazines in her mother’s Fairprice plastic bags stacked against the wall for support. The bedroom doors that didn’t open all the way. How many times had her father cut his hand on something sharp while digging deep into these large, unidentifiable piles? Those were the only times ‘fuck’ was ever allowed in the house.
Si-Ling sucked air and pushed it back down.
She dragged her heavy body along the narrow hallway into the kitchen and trampled on a cereal box, pressing her palm on the grimy wall for balance. She moved to the sink, stared at the plates and bowls and cups sitting in soapy water.
Freddy shouted, You know my teacher used to call me too?
Si-Ling turned off the water; she held on to the sink and waited.
I told him my Ma got a stroke, he continued. I had to stay home. Because my Pa got no money for a maid. Stroke is stroke, right? But that fucker didn’t believe. Then when I brought her catheter to school, you know what he said? He said the thing I put inside my mother is fake. So I just wrapped the thing around his neck and pulled and pulled and pulled until the girls in class screamed. The school expelled me. Just like that. No second chance. I admit I was violent and shit. I admit I broke his nose. But my mother got a stroke! I was like, you for real? Ha-ha. Celine, you there? I’m teaching you something here. This the kind of world we live in. Celine? Where you at?
Si-Ling could never decide if these stories about sending folks to the Emergency Room were true. Once it was an old uncle for pinching a little boy’s buttock in front of the urinal. Another was a crying dude for slapping a girl at the bus stop, but it turned out the girl had cuckolded the dude. Freddy spat into her face right before his bus came. Not that Freddy was biased; he was just late for his meeting with his fortune-teller at the Buddhist temple. Freddy hated long queues. Like, he’d rather give up his vote than wait behind the yellow line outside the polling station. Freddy was always punctual; he respected your time. Si-Ling wondered what her father would think of this and suddenly felt like giving Freddy a hug. She remembered Freddy once shoving his hands in his pockets and saying he wasn’t afraid of anyone. She pictured this, again and again. Would Freddy make it? Or would Freddy be crushed? Her father was the one who bullied. Tears came to her eyes.
She’d always wanted to set fire to her father’s books, his vintage issues of The New York Times but could never find the strength. She’d always envied the calm her mother showed. Like the time he told his doctoral buddies on a conference call that she was just some dumbo housewife. He’d made fun of her for always answering the phone with, Can I help you? And for chatting with the oven like a person would with a dog. He’d even claimed that she’d once shed tears over a broken egg and that only a full fridge could keep her happy. And Si-Ling— pfft!—had turned out to be no more than a disappointing defect from a substandard factory. Who gave him the right? Didn’t he also live in the same mouldy flat as her? Didn’t he wear loose shirts to hide his flabby belly? Unlike Freddy, he never had time to hit the gym or binge on a TV series. He couldn’t do shit when her mother announced one morning that she was leaving on a second honeymoon in Sydney; he didn’t even blink. All he did was toss two fifty-dollar notes onto Si-Ling’s pillow, take his laptop, and take the ferry to Batam where he said he’d booked a villa. Because he needed to cool off by the sea. So really, Si-Ling thought, what’s so awesome about having a PhD?
Si-Ling craned her neck to read the calendar on the fridge and hoped Freddy would stay and help with the cleanup. Her father would be back the next day.
Orange okay? she shouted.
You got peaches? I want the ones from a can.
But my father only eats oranges.
Si-Ling stabbed the orange with her thumbnail, pressing and punishing the orange until juice dribbled down her wrists. Orange perfume sprayed up into her eyes. She turned her face away and saw the parcel, but she couldn’t remember what was supposed to be inside. She heard Freddy coming out of the bedroom, saw him in his Ralph Lauren polo-tee and Levi’s jeans. He had his aviators on.
Freddy turned to the orange slices arranged on the porcelain plate and blew air through his lips. Celine, how long we been together? Six weeks? Nine? How many times do I need to tell you that I don’t like oranges?
But there’re only oranges in the fridge.
Next time just be honest and tell me you don’t have peaches. When will you learn? See? Now you wasted a nice, good orange.
Freddy was over at the door, putting on his shoes.
Where are you going?
Meeting my numerologist.
Within seconds Freddy was gone.
Si-Ling dumped the orange into the wastebasket and added the porcelain to the pile in the sink. In her bedroom, she removed the covers from her mattress and brought them to the washing machine. She stood there examining the coloured buttons on the appliance. She panicked and decided to rinse the sheets in the toilet. Showerhead in hand, she prayed for Freddy to get his own place soon, where she’d go whenever things got really stuffy at home. Maybe that’s why she didn’t mind him running off. And he’d been talking about seeking career advice. Like, he might consider naming cars for a living. Like, in marketing. Because he used to fail spelling tests in school. But maybe Freddy wasn’t actually being serious. And then she wondered what he had meant when he admitted he was a bad Christian.
Her teacher was calling again.
Si-Ling answered the phone. Where are you?
Her head filled with things to say. She said she was home; she wasn’t feeling well today. Medical certificate. First thing in the morning. Clear? Si-Ling nodded to herself, and when she hung up, she felt as though she’d just told the truth. It didn’t make her feel any better though. Her face was red with heat. She wanted to laugh all of a sudden; she tried to smother her face with her pillow.
Was it important at all how she felt, what she wanted?
No one ever asked.
She remembered that she used to like staring at the moon from her window. She had wanted chills down her spine. Her stomach to feel tight. Her room small and silent. It was the only time she had ever allowed herself to feel weak. Wouldn’t it be badass though, she thought, if she ever became the first Singaporean woman to hit outer space? Maybe if she put her mind to it. Maybe if she grew a few centimetres taller. But first, she told herself, pass Science and Math. She would have to work her butt off in trigonometry class, not forget her scientific calculator for Continual Assessment 2, and commit to memory the human reproductive system. Simple things. Little things. She reached her hand under her T-shirt where the skin was still raw and brought her fingers to her nose. She stood up and clattered around in her room for her cigarettes. Then she stopped, white noise ringing in her ears—did Freddy record any videos? Not that she didn’t trust him. But she’d heard about a girl in school who’d had her videos leaked online, in parts, and then complied. Luckily, the girl’s parents were rich. They hired some million-dollar computer team to clean up the Internet. But even then, the girl still had to leave the country to study in Ireland. No way her father had a million dollars lying around, or if he did, no way he would part with it to save her dignity. Si-Ling wasn’t sure of anything anymore. She’d kept her eyes shut the whole time. Then she hurried to the living room and unplugged Freddy’s phone, which he’d forgotten to take when he’d left, from the speakers. Her shoulders relaxed. She suddenly felt very alert, very awake.
She remembered the parcel on the table.
She heard the doorbell.
She opened the door.
Keat Kun stubbed out his cigarette on a void deck pillar. All his life he’d never grown to dislike a person so intensely in so little time or wished so much for someone to drop dead right in front of him. This guy though, fucking hell, he wouldn’t mind leaving him to starve and decompose inside a well, if he ever found him way down there all drenched and skeletal, chapped-lipped and broken-legged and begging for his life. This guy was one of those rotten pinkies. It was one thing to corrupt a schoolgirl, and another thing to admit to it. But to boast about it? And when offered a cigarette, to ask for two? Tis pig bastard wasn’t even polite enough to deserve euphemisms. And the way he’d pronounced ‘moist’ was just plain vulgar. A sheer insult to the young lady he was referring to. Who in their right mind would befoul a beloved’s reputation before a stranger? Perhaps the bastard didn’t even love her. Might have abused her. Had he forced himself on her? Maybe it’d been a case of domestic violence.
Or maybe not.
If the girl had felt unsafe earlier, she would’ve alerted him. She would’ve requested his assistance, his protection.
And she did not.
But even if she did?
The code of conduct for postal employees states that he must absolutely, at all times, mind his own business. He’d been given clear instructions that a postman was a postman and nothing more. There was no more room for mistakes. But he knew it would take at least a month of dishwashing and laundry cleaning and feeding his mother cooled porridge to loosen the grip of that wonderfully provocative picture painted in his head. Something he hadn’t asked for; something he didn’t need. Furthermore, he didn’t appreciate the adrenaline he now had ringing through his system. He popped a Clorets in his mouth and sucked and watched Freddy stride across the road with so much gusto. He prayed hard that the braggart might possess some kind of flaw or disability or ailment so that he could hate him a little less. Like a hideous mole on his tummy. Or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Keat Kun watched the heat shimmer off the asphalt.
He shook his head.
He dragged himself to his motorcycle, and, leaning against it, pinged his iPad for the next location. Soon, he was looking around, at the empty playground and the open court, and he realised that, like his own neighbourhood, this one also had a distinct smell, though of what he could not say. He looked at the red Ninja Delivery van with its hazard lights blinking parked at the Loading/Unloading Bay at the estate. Then he studied the block number painted on the building’s facade and tried to match it with the letters and digits on his iPad. It wasn’t rocket science; he’d simply made a mistake. So he took a deep breath and made his way back to the lift lobby, and rolled his closed eyes when he felt and heard the lift doors clamp shut.
When the front door opened, Keat Kun thought he smelled orange. The music was no longer playing in the background.
He noted the girl’s disappointment and felt slightly hurt.
Are you that same guy?
Keat Kun nodded.
What do you want?
He asked the girl for the parcel back. He apologised. He had prepared a speech on his way up, and now he wondered if he should dump it on her. Again, he noticed himself staring at her chest. He swallowed, tilted his head back to look at the neighbour’s door, then looked again at her, unsure.
Hold on, the girl said, and disappeared inside.
When she returned, she gave him peeled orange slices nested inside a tiny clear ziplock bag. You okay, uncle? she asked. You need to use the toilet? If you want, you can put your things outside. The toilet is behind the kitchen.
Keat Kun was touched; he was so touched that he opened his mouth and started berating the girl’s boyfriend. He simply assumed. He assumed that the girl wanted to listen to what he wanted to say. He told her to stay away from Freddy, if that was even his real name. A bastard like that bastard would probably use a different name with different girls. That bastard probably slept with a million different girls. Young girls. Gullible girls. Girls who think it’s cool to have an older boyfriend. Listen to me, he said. I know guys like him. I have friends like him. Guys like him think that society’s rules don’t apply. Leave him! And girl, you should be in school. Why are you not in school? What do you want in life? Where are your parents? Do your parents know about him? They’d be heartbroken if they found out about him. I have a niece, he said. And I will never allow her to date someone like him.
He saw her taking a step back, her hand reaching for the door. Busybody, she said, and tried to shut the door, but Keat Kun stuck out his foot. Keat Kun grabbed her wrist. No, wait, listen, he said, pushing her back, twisting her wrist, pushing his way in. He felt a blow to the back of his head and his neck jerked and his eyes widened. He lost his grip on the girl and lost his footing slightly, and the next thing he knew his arms were pinioned from behind. He was wrestled roughly down; someone was pushing his weight on him. The pressure made it hard for him to breathe, but he managed to cry, Leave her alone…dude.
Celine? You okay? he heard Freddy say. Can you bring me my phone?
Si-Ling looked at the clock on the wall and smiled to herself.
Freddy hadn’t lied about sending people to the Emergency Room after all. She felt relieved, somewhat, that she could trust him. Even better was Freddy staying behind, and he was treating her with more tenderness than he did half an hour ago. All that was left to do was to clean up the house before her father came home. And if there’s time, she might even start on homework, she thought. Maybe they could have macaroni salad for dinner with canned peaches from the mini-mart. She may not know how to operate the washing machine, but she remembered how to make macaroni salad. Add mayo. Use Del Monte. Her mother’s recipe.
She was going to surprise Freddy.
Her mother had called to say that she wasn’t coming back for another week; she was enjoying herself; she’d gained so much weight. Woo! Si-Ling kissed Freddy on the cheeks. Because no matter how she looked at it, everything seemed to have turned out great, a happy ending. Her father didn’t sound angry when she told him on the phone that Freddy, yes her boyfriend, had saved her from the postman, whom she herself had saved, too, in a way, from Freddy’s kicks. She’d managed to convince Freddy, with her words, not to break the poor guy’s ribs. Si-Ling felt she’d done well. She wasn’t as weak as she’d thought; she’d saved the poor guy from possible fatal injuries. On top of that, she’d saved his job. The guy looked like he really needed his job. He was on his knees, begging them not to report him to the company. He had a mother at home, he begged them. Waiting for him. She needed her dinner, her fresh pyjamas, her son to sing her a little karaoke, a little Andy Lau, a little Jacky Cheung before putting her in bed.
I’ll kiss your feet! the postman had cried out.
Si-Ling was looking at Freddy and Freddy was looking at her.
Which part? the postman asked.
My toes, she said, the pinkie.
And it turned out to be a pretty amazing feeling—top of the world.