Marcus Ong Kah Ho
“I need comfort, not titillation,” Angie said when I reached for her breast in bed. “I need loving, not that kind of loving. I need sleeping pills. My mind’s swimming,” she said. “I’m worried, I can’t stop thinking if it’s—I know it’s not what you want to hear—but I might have insomnia. Like your mother. Maybe worse? Did she suffer a lot? Sorry. Sorry. Of course she did. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.”
Without looking at her, I said:
I excused myself. Sitting on the toilet bowl, I began pinching myself between the thighs.
Angie got sucked into The Walking Dead.
“Neegan’s an asshole,” she’d say, always in the morning. “Messiah complex my ass. Hope he gets mauled by zombies. Bet you he has a small penis. All these men.”
Then it was Breaking Bad, The Simpsons, The Office. It was astonishing how quickly she lost weight.
“Is it all in the mind?” she asked, exiting the shower. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” She made coffee, then poured it down the sink. “What did your mother say?”
“I never asked,” I said, and made myself a cup of coffee. “You want her pills?”
“They expired yet? Also, is it advisable? Is it something doctors might say, ‘Contrary to popular belief…’”
I asked Google, and this time I tried looking her in the eyes when I shook my head.
“Hey,” she smiled, tapping her belly, “at least I won’t lose sleep over the baby. Provided, ha-ha, I live through the pregnancy.”
It was her first joke in months.
I poured away the coffee, overwhelmed.
Without curtains on the window, the sunlight was unbearable. I could smell the shower gel on her heated skin—it smelled like my mother’s perfume.
Tear-stricken, I heard Angie say: “Take me to the doctor.”
I felt her palm, cold on my arm.
We found a doctor who made all efforts to be kind, who implored us to stay calm, despite having accidentally used the word severe. “It’s normal,” the doctor added. “When women get pregnant, sleep is one of the first things to go.” Panicking, he warned us, would only make things worse.
“That was helpful,” Angie said in the taxi. She wound down the window, tossed the melatonin and antihistamines out, and shut her eyes.
Our taxi driver slammed the brakes, eager to teach us a lesson. Our eyes widened and our pupils dilated. And it was this hypnotic moment I found myself asking, Can a person lose the will to sleep? I looked across: Angie was breathing with her mouth open.
“Okay, new plan,” I said and tossed my pillow on the sofa and found mosquito bumps under my chin the next morning.
“Okay, new plan,” I said the following night, and coaxed her skirt off and tried to tire her out. “Feeling better?” I asked.
“Huh? Sorry. Was counting zombies.”
“Do you want an abortion?” I asked Angie, desperate. “There’s still time.”
“We haven’t tried acupuncture or aroma therapy,” she said, walking away. “Or we could do both to save time!” she shouted from the kitchen.
Or placebos, I thought, and heard a splash.
I stopped putting on my pajamas in front of her, and she stopped brushing her teeth. No more phones, infomercials, physical exercise before bed. I unplugged the clock. I began to read sanitized versions of the newspaper to her. On rainy nights, I massaged her shoulders and neck and told her that I love her. Had my father done the same for my mother when she couldn’t sleep? He still kept her pillow in the cupboard. I’d visited him at his flat once; he’d rapped the wall and said that the way my mother had removed herself from us, so gruesome and sudden, showed that she never appreciated the lengths he’d gone through for her.
My tongue had curled in my mouth. “It’s not about you,” I’d said, and he’d answered back, “I was the one there, then. And the one here now, breathing. Where were you?”
Days later, I was at my father’s place for advice, stocking his kitchen first. I cooked him lunch. I asked him:
“Did the dog help Ma? Where’s Fluffy?”
His flat was disgusting.
“Get a haircut,” I said. “You’re still young. Go out, meet someone.”
“Yoga,” he said. “We never got a chance to try that.”
Then he sat down and cried.
I separated the women’s health magazines from the unpaid bills on the coffee table. I collected the empty bottles into a trash bag. I raked my fingers through my hair, held my breath.
“We’re cursed,” he interrupted, looking at me for approval. But I was listening to the rain.
It was getting dark outside, and the windows were melting. I touched his face. I pulled him to my chest and felt him writhe in my arms. “I’m sorry,” I said. I could smell the sorrow in his breath and old Brylcreem in his wild hair. I promised I’d visit again.
He said into my ear, “We tried. We really did.”
Before I left the house, he told me to stay optimistic.
It was unsettling.
On my way home, I bought avocados and lemongrass from Fairprice, resisting the wine. Along the way, stepping on puddles, I could feel gravel poking at my soles. I stopped, stooped, and removed my shoes, tapped them against the heel of my palm before putting them back on.
Back home, I took out my mother’s suicide note from my wallet and read:
The house felt muted, stationary at night. It was as if time had come to a stop. It was perfect for meditation, twenty-minutes, twice a day. But Angie rolled her big black eyes. “I must warn you,” she said. “I may—”
“Shut up,” I said, having hardly slept.
“Your anxiety is making me nervous,” Angie said.
“You can’t be selfish,” I said. “I, too, am suffering.”
“Woo…it’s a competition now,” she laughed. “Pain transformed into glory.”
“Is my pain invalid because yours is greater?”
“Maybe it’s the state of the world,” I said, thinking out of the box. “Ugly citizens, terrorism, climate change. People are just not nice to each other.”
“Maybe it’s your lack of ambition, gumption,” she said. “When was the last time you read a book?”
“How about a change in environment?” I said. “How much do we have in the bank? Scandinavia? Canada? Australia?”
“Myanmar, Cambodia. Thailand would be stretching. How about you just tranquillize me?”
“And the baby? I need you to stay positive.”
“And have faith? Is that what your father said to her?”
Angie bought herself a new pillow to prove that she hadn’t given up yet. “I almost fainted on my way back.”
“Ordered a new bed online,” I said, putting up my fingers. “Three working-days.”
“Three more nights,” she said. “You sure we can afford?”
I mopped the floor, operated the washing machine, hung the laundry in the sun while Angie closed her eyes in bed to conserve energy. “Remember when computers used to have screen-savers?” she asked. She must have had heard me peeking from behind the door. “It never really worked, did it?”
“I like to think it did.”
I was opening a jar of marmite for porridge for lunch when I suddenly remembered we’d missed my birthday. “I think I have worms in my brain,” Angie shouted from the bedroom. I was so tired that I fell asleep.
I dreamt of things you shouldn’t say to an insomniac: just relax; what do you have to worry about; I can’t fall asleep either; take a hot bath; have some chamomile tea; you’re not trying hard enough; just lie in bed and close your eyes; zzzz…
I woke up to the sound of persistent drilling, construction work downstairs. By then it was clear that heaven wasn’t on our side.
Angie appeared out of nowhere, her face stricken. “They’re digging a train station,” she said.
Which would take eight years, if things went as planned.
“But think about the convenience,” she said. “Think about resale value: a good chunk of change after I’m gone.”
“Not funny,” I said.
“You fell asleep,” she said.
The first thing Angie did when we arrived at my father’s place was cut his hair. She could hardly hold up the scissors. I was unpacking our bags. The next thing I knew, my father’s ear was bleeding.
But they seemed comfortable enough with each other; he’d removed his bloodied shirt in front of her without shame.
“Have you tried yoga?” he asked her.
Before Angie could catch her breath, he produced two yoga mats from the storeroom, rubber bands for her hair, and then went back for the first-aid kit. “Your wife can start wherever she likes,” he said, eyes shining. There were no rules. Not anymore. He would turn this place into a sanctuary.
I’d leave for work in the morning, and the two of them practiced until I came home for dinner. The windows were locked, so the living room reeked of their sweat.
“Well,” I’d say, “what’s for dinner?”
At the table, Angie would put chopsticks in my father’s hands for him to use. My father would glance up at her. He surprised her with my mother’s Wakin Chau CDs, her make-up tubes, books that she’d read when she was trying to fall asleep. When Angie reappeared from our temporary bedroom, she said, “Sometimes I wonder—is it Wakin Chau’s voice or is it Wakin Chau’s song that I like?”
And my father replied, “What if Wakin Chau sang someone else’s songs? What if someone else sang Wakin Chau’s songs?”
Angie started singing.
Later, I washed the dishes while two of them found the same things funny in the living room that was, at last, scrubbed and shiny. Only much, much later would I join them.
There were shopping trips, decoupage, lunches in hipster cafes, but never a visit to the barber or hair salon; Angie did my father’s hair. He was telling me that the barista now knew how they took their coffee when I said I wasn’t used to his new color—greenish-brown—but Angie thought it suited him just fine.
He told her things even I didn’t know about. Like how he once time-travelled along the Trans-Siberian railway. He’d seen many places in his younger days, he said, thanks to the small fortune he’d had made through certain smart investments—he winked—and this was before he married my mother.
“That was a long time ago,” I said.
“Not for me,” he said.
This time, Angie came out of his room dressed in my mother’s green cashmere sweater and stood in front of us in silence. Her belly, now significantly larger, showed.
My father’s hand fell slowly onto the remote. He muted the TV.
“Fun fact,” Angie said one night, her blanket snugged up to her chin. “Did you know your dad’s only five years older than Johnny Depp?”
I could hear him doing sit-ups outside; he’d been cracking open cans of 100-plus in between his sets. When I laughed, Angie asked me what I found so funny. I said I stopped by home earlier and found out the digging had stopped.
Angie peeked at the blinking clock. “Go to sleep,” she said, and kissed my eyes.
“What about you?”
“Gonna brush my teeth.”
My father was grunting outside.
Some nights, lying in bed next to her in the complete darkness of the room, I would smell him on her. “What smell?” she said.
“Brylcreem,” I said. “When are we moving back?”
“The whole house smells of him. Is it me, or is he way happier these days?”
“He is happy,” I said when I heard her yawn. “Thank you.” And when there was no reply:
“I’m happy for you.”
I tried to cheer myself up with happy thoughts: that last birthday cake my mother ever baked for me. What color? What flavor? The answers seemed obvious, but I was beginning to have doubts. What if she, too, had tried yoga? The coffin with her in it had no viewing window above her face. I opened my eyes. For a moment I thought I’d see her lying next to me. Angie was scratching her cheek. Her eyes were shut. A smile turned up on her face, and there was peace at last. I turned to my side and tried to go to sleep.
Marcus Ong Kah Ho / 王家豪 is a writer and teacher from Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, The Adroit Journal, Meetinghouse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Litro, Guesthouse, and elsewhere. Read more at: www.marcusongkh.com.