At the time, I wasn’t looking for anything real. I was only twenty-six. I didn’t make enough money to pay taxes. Some days, I could never decide on what to eat and chose to eat nothing. Other days, I worried about dying.
A guy I was seeing was some kind of chef, or trying to be. I knew he worked at a café in the city. We would meet at his place on Fridays after work. Whenever we were together, he’d make me cook. It was compromise for me not being able to pick a restaurant for dinner.
“Personally, I don’t like doing it myself at home,” he said, the first time he led me into the kitchen. “There are no helpers.”
It was overwhelming being put in charge of such a task. I told him so.
“You just need practice,” he said, and he’d tell me what he wanted to eat.
I’d been living on my own since university. I could only whip up cheat versions of beef stir-fry, pasta. He would taste them and look repulsed but say things like, “Good effort.” Later, he would ask me for blowjobs. Sometimes, in the kitchen, if his roommates were out. He would always grab my hair. When it was over, he would thank me for the dinner and the head.
We both shared a New York Times subscription. One night, when he was in the toilet, I covertly took screenshots of recipes I thought sounded good and removed my credit card from the auto-billing.
My mother was very ill. She had been ill for a long time. On the outside, she looked just about the same, only if bald and a few inches shorter because she was hunching so badly. Cancer was on a rampage inside of her. It was the ovaries first, then the liver, then the spleen.
“Thankfully, that’s it,” she told me. I wasn’t so sure. I have Google. I visited many cancer research websites. The prognosis was bleak.
My father has got her doing all sorts of exercises. “Oxygen for the brain,” he said. Somehow, he was convinced that physical activity will keep her from dying. I went over every other evening and watched the whole routine from the patio. He would do lunges and she would try to keep up. Her scalp shone like a lamp under the sun. After ten reps, she’d pant and scramble for a chair next to me under the shade.
“Okay!” yelled my father, still pumped. “We take five!”
My mother and I watched him disappear into the house for water. She turned to me.
“Do you do pap-smears?” she wanted to know.
“Yes,” I lied. It was easy lying to my mother. It came very naturally.
“Whatever’s on the brochure.”
My mother looked sceptical. She looked pale. I thought she was about to faint, until my father came over and color returned to her cheeks.
“All right, sweetheart?” he asked, squeezing her hand. She nodded, and squeezed his hand back.
Most of the men I dated were introduced to me by Tracey. Once or twice it was people she knew—a cousin, a friend. Usually, she’d set me up with complete strangers at parties. Her favorite place to find love was at Single to Mingle nights. It was where she met Keith.
There was always booze. There were always people being plied with booze. And there were ice-breaker sessions. Such questions included revealing your most humiliating secret or worst insecurity to a group of drunk people.
“There’s got to be more than life to this,” I told Tracey.
Half the people at these things were lonely expatriates. The other half were locals eager to take advantage of their loneliness. No one seemed embarrassed here. Everyone appeared to be very honest with their intentions. Still, I walked out early. On my way to the parking lot, I ran into a guy I knew from university. Coincidentally, we were parked next to one another.
“Sam,” I called.
“Hey!” He was surprised, if not a little bit pleased. He still looked good, his hair a little longer than I remembered. We chatted for a bit. After university, he had gone to work overseas. Now he was back, but he wasn’t sure it’d be permanent. Nonetheless, we exchanged numbers. Then rain started falling and we hurried into our respective cars. Before he backed out, he waved through his window. I waved back.
Tracey gave my number to a guy at the Single to Mingle party after I left. A couple of days later, he texted.
“I know a great place,” he said of where we could go eat. I didn’t like picking, so I was happy to go along with it.
When we showed up outside the Vietnamese restaurant, neither of us were dressed up.
“Wow!” he said, looking at me. I knew Tracey sold me really short so that his expectations would be exceeded.
The food was cheap and good. It was run by a Pakistani man and the music they played was pre-Y2K Billboard chart-toppers. My date was very enthusiastic and knew just what to order. Each time he took a bite of something, his eyes would roll back. He used bombastic language to describe the dish he was eating. It was like a performance I had to sit through. He even used his chopsticks to create a drumroll against the table every time the waitress set something down.
I’d look at the waitress and try to convey sympathy with my eyes. She was trying to do the same.
Once, while I was on holiday in Tokyo, I met a man at a bar. We went back to his place, a tiny studio next to the train station. He made me a drink and suggested with his hands what he wanted to do next. He didn’t speak English, but everything was all easily understood.
Only his pelvis jerked when we were having sex. Or he was having it, and I was waiting.
“Use your hands,” I gestured to him.
He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He looked flustered. He grabbed everywhere. He grabbed my thighs and found the chub there. He pinched. He was fascinated by it. Without pulling out, he continued on a different discovery. I just lay there. Outside, the night train rumbled on, rattling the windows.
I was sick of meeting men only through Tracey. I went on a dating app. One guy seemed nice, even though his profile said his favorite book was American Psycho.
We met for drinks. We were both a little disappointed with the other’s appearance. He thought I was too tall. Likewise, I thought he’d be taller. In real life, I also got to learn that he didn’t wear deodorant.
He asked what I was looking for in a relationship. I told him, commiseration. Another lie, but he believed me.
We talked easily for the rest of the night about dating, jobs, politics. We disagreed on literature, but so do most people. He said both his parents died from cancer. He said he feared it. He called himself an in-denial hypochondriac. He constantly believed that any minor discomfort meant he was dying, but that he refused to get it checked out.
When the restaurant closed, we went outside. He smoked, I stood by. He had three cigarettes. After he was done, he walked me to my car. Then, he walked away to his. I never saw him again.
I was at the supermarket with my mother when I ran into Sam again. It was near closing time.
“Hi!” he said. He came up to me first. I was browsing the organic aisle. I was with the trolley while I waited for my mother to grab peanut butter.
We exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes. My mother returned, without the peanut butter. She was annoyed it was out. It was the only thing she wanted to eat. I introduced her to Sam. He was polite. He pretended not to notice her scarf or her missing hair or her gaunt face. He made small talk with her, smiled, then left us.
“Who was that?”
“An ex,” I lied again.
My mother became quiet. I guessed from the way she lowered her head she was a little shocked.
“I didn’t know you dated.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I just thought,” she began then rephrased. “You’re always lonely.”
I don’t know if she meant to offend. I wasn’t offended; it was the truth. We continued shopping in silence. Neither of us brought up the topic again. My mother and I were never close, but there was always an unspoken mutual understanding between us, one of thresholds.
Tracey called me at work during my lunch break.
“I met someone,” she immediately said without “hello”.
“At the office. He’s the new manager of my division. He’s outgoing and passionate about helping the company grow.”
“What about Keith?”
“Keith is averse to commitment.”
I didn’t say anything. Every other month, Tracey would spring a conversation like this on me. Each time, she would meet a man whom she claimed was “exciting”. Each time, she would soon after be filled with guilt and regret and return to Keith. When people grow comfortable, they become afraid.
“Anyway,” Tracey went on, “I think Keith is going to break up with me. It should just happen.”
“Why don’t you break up with him instead?”
“I can’t do that to him,” she said. I could hear she was chewing. “Besides, if I do it, he would get suspicious. He would think there was someone else. It could get very messy. I’m just trying to save everyone from a whole lot of trouble.”
“You’re very pragmatic,” I said without a hint of irony.
Tracey agreed. “I think so too.”
Sam texted me, out of the blue. We decided to get coffee after work. After coffee, we went to the cinema. Nothing we wanted to see was available. We ended up getting tickets to the 8:45 p.m. screening of Monster Hunter. When Milla Jovovich bludgeoned a creature to death and Hollywood-crimson red splattered across the screen, his hand searched for mine.
After the movie, we walked to a bar. The night was cool, the moon was hiding. There were people everywhere.
“Are you seeing anyone currently?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “Are you?”
He thought about something, then added. “Well, I was, but it’s over now.”
“Was it serious?”
“I was never seeing anyone seriously.”
At my apartment, we found ours gravitating toward the floor. We climbed on top of the carpet. He put one hand over my mouth and the other against my bare hip, fingers and thumb that pressed into my skin, the way you do with oranges, leaving dimples in its wake. He kissed me soft but above me he thrashed like a storm.
He left while I was asleep. I won’t see him in a while. He was going away for a work trip.
The next morning, the dimples turned into bruises. I traced and fit my fingertips over them.
The first boyfriend I ever had I met in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. I was in my second-year of university. Before that, I never had a guy interested in me. I wasn’t interested in anyone.
We were sitting across from one another. He was the only person in the room who was my age. He had curly hair, a Nintendo Switch with him. He sat with his ankles crossed in front of him. We made eye contact. He was kind enough to smile. Kinder to move forward and sit in the empty chair beside me.
There was something equally cliched and diverting about meeting a stranger at a clinic. I could already see it as an anecdote I can regale in older, lonelier years.
“What are you in for?” I asked him.
He pointed to one of the doors down the hallway.
“I’m with my dad.”
He keyed his digits into my phone. We made plans for drinks in the future. Just then, my mother came out of the doctor’s office. She collected a specialist referral letter from the nurse’s desk. Later, in the car, she told me the doctor told her that she might have cancer. I never told her about the boy I just met. It just didn’t seem appropriate at the time.
Not long after Sam returned and not long after we began dating, we broke up. It happened in the middle of a coin-service launderette.
He was naming restaurants for Saturday dinner.
“I can’t,” I said. “I have to visit my mother.”
“Let me come with you,” he suggested.
“She’s not well.”
“I know,” he said. “You told me this.”
“I’d like to come, though.”
This back-and-forth went on for some time. Forty minutes, while we watched clothes tumble about through the round glass windows of the machines. At first, it was innocent badgering. Eventually, he lost his patience. He was taking inexplicable offense. We argued. It seemed irreconcilable.
“I just don’t understand why you’re being stubborn about this,” I said.
“And I don’t understand why you don’t want me to meet your parents or your friends.”
I said nothing. We sat in silence for the remainder of the cycle. His finished a minute before mine. I watched him pull his underwear out of the dryer.
Tracey showed up at my place, crying. She showed me a diamond ring on her finger.
“Keith?” I guessed, hesitantly, and was relieved when she nodded excitedly and wept some more.
I congratulated her. I offered her wine from the fridge. She was too excited to drink. I poured myself a steep glass.
“Apparently, he’d been thinking about asking for quite some time,” she said.
I thought of Tracey’s routine dilemmas regarding Keith. “What made you change your mind?”
“Oh, we’ve just been together for a long time.” This was true. Almost six years. She met Keith about the same time I met her. Tracey sighed. “And we both decided we were ready for the more adult phase of our lives.”
I tried to hide my disappointment. The reasons were a lot less romantic than I had anticipated. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. As long as I’ve known her, Tracey was never a romantic person.
“If I had a wedding,” she said, “will you be there?”
“Of course I would. But what do you mean, if?”
“In my head I was thinking of something private. A ceremony with just family. You know what I mean.”
She placed her hand on top of my lap. “But if there was a party, you’d come?”
“You could even meet someone there,” she said.
Sam and I first met at a party. I hadn’t planned on going. Around 9 p.m., I received a text from some girl in my Asian Diaspora Lit class. Second floor, fourth door to your left. I ignored it and turned off my phone. I was trying to watch TV, found that there was nothing to watch, got up and got dressed.
I began living at the dormitory on campus in my last year. I wasn’t from out of state or an international student like everyone else here; my house was only thirty minutes away. I worked part-time at the local Starbucks to pay for rent. On weekends, I would drive home to eat dinner with my parents.
When I arrived at the top of the stairs, I found a condom discarded in the hallway. Smoke was hanging in a suffocating haze. When I got into the apartment, it was loud and dark. Red cloth was thrown over a lamp. Someone thumped me in the back and handed me a drink. Blink-182 was squeaking from a cheap Bluetooth speaker, like a mouse drowning in a river of horny university students jittery from Ritalin. I didn’t even see the girl who invited me over.
I was standing in line at the fridge to get more beer. I was trying to remember why I agreed to come. I supposed it was for the free alcohol. My boyfriend and I had just broken up. I was missing my period. I was going to the pharmacy the next day to buy a test.
Sam, though I didn’t know him yet, was in front of me, rummaging. He turned around and handed me a can. He smiled. He was tall and had nice eyes, I thought.
He asked if I came here alone and I said nope. He said he was, alone.
Later, we both slipped outdoors for some air. Above us, the clouds were heavy. We talked, and he told me about some problems he was having with class, and I told him about my new roommate, Tracey.
Nothing we talked about that night was of anything profound. It wasn’t a problem. We didn’t go back to the party. Before morning came, he took my hand in his, and didn’t try to kiss me.
The first time I attended a play at the theatre, I was on my own. The story was about two people who were unhappy trying to be happy, together. The entire play had only two actors. There was no set, just two spotlights. I watched the man kiss his co-star, an actress in a bad wig, with tongue. I watched them recite impassioned declarations of fidelity and love to one another. The stage was small and the play was quite terrible but the world was theirs, and when they began climbing into each other’s laps in the second act, their fake sex looked more real than any real sex I ever had. After curtain call, I looked for the actor’s name in the program book. I hung around outside the stage door and waited. He never showed.
Out of desperation, I dialled the number of some guy on my phone. I didn’t remember who this person was, or what he looked like, or how we met. I didn’t know how I felt about this, how I hung onto past relationships, even the trivial ones, just so I had an inventory of fleeting companionship.
When he opened his door, I was relieved that he knew who I was. Like it made the circumstances less pathetic.
When I kissed him, I felt nothing. There was shyness on his lips. Perhaps he sensed the awkwardness of the whole situation. I kissed him until I felt him wanting. I grabbed his waist and put my hands on his hips. I dug my fingers hard into his skin just to feel something.
Later, in my car, I called Sam. Everything felt like a lie. I told him that. He asked me, what I was looking for. I said, “Intimacy.”
Sam let me wrap my arms around his waist, waking him up. I kissed his cold neck, his ears. He turned over to let his nose meet my cheek.
“You taste like yesterday,” he murmured, before we both sunk back into sleep.
When noon came, he kissed me awake. I pushed my fingers into his hair, just to watch it get wild. He opened his mouth, as if beginning to say something, but then stopped. I put my hand over his mouth, over the words. I drowned them with kisses. My underwear was coming off. His hands found their way, without guidance. When he held me, it was like being anchored. I let him hold me. Against the window behind us, sunlight was pressing in.
Four years after her initial cancer diagnosis, the doctor told my mother that the disease had spread to her brain.
My father stopped making her do exercises. He quit his job permanently, despite avowing in the past never to retire.
I spent Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays with my mother at the hospital. The doctor suggested aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Debulking surgery might be off the table, as the doctor wasn’t keen on a procedure so invasive at this stage. The ultimate choice, though, was with my mother.
We didn’t say it aloud, but I knew neither my mother nor I saw any more point to any of this. I supposed she liked keeping alive the illusion that she could still be saved.
“I heard,” my mother said so softly I had to lean over her chair, “of a woman who drank her own pee to cure her ovarian cancer.”
“I know.” I watched my mother’s eyes fight to stay open. The lids were paper-thin, striated with blue-green veins, like the rest of her skin. She had a woollen blanket over her knees and a puke bucket on the side table next to some fruit. At least three other patients in the room were throwing up. My mother was trying not to let it tempt her.
“So are you gonna give it a shot?”
“I’m not insane.” A smile slowly returned to her face. “Don’t tell your father,” she reminded me.
“Why? Because he’d make you do it?”
“Because it’d give him hope.”
Afterwards, my father picked us up outside the hospital. My parents chatted amiably about the treatment. She told my father about the kind nurse who provided her the blanket when she had forgotten to bring one. She told him about the soothing music they played. She told him that, today, she had no nausea. She was even hungry. My father nodded and smiled and for a brief moment, our eyes met in the rear-view mirror. He asked my mother what she wanted to have for dinner that night. She told him. He said, “Fantastic.” They held hands over the console. For the rest of the way home, nobody talked.
I looked out of the window. The day was still young. Sunlight was bouncing off the faces of tall glass buildings, a cascade of brightness. I made myself watch; I didn’t blink once.
Natalie Yap is a writer from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Porter House Review, Emerge Literary Journal, The Cincinnati Review, and AAWW’s The Margins. She is currently at work on a short story collection. You can find her at http://www.natalieyap.com.