We play often in public, my husband and I, as we walk through shopping malls, in private as we stroll through empty garden parks, or stand by the sea at the beach or at the harbor’s front. I play and joke and tease him with my words. I like to remind him of past events, either a mistake or a funny joke, and make him take responsibility for his foolishness. One of our most repetitive banters is about Alexa, the Amazon machine that enables you to control many connected devices, such as bedroom lights and stereo music. When he mentions Alexa to my friends, or his, I would dramatize a head-shaking-sigh and say, “So jealous. His mistress. Even in our bedroom he calls for her.”
One day when we were alone on a walk, I said, “Don’t talk about her, Alexa. Makes me jealous.” His reply, which came quite spontaneously was, “If tech is your enemy, then food is mine.” I did not have a response. I was caught with my hand in my panties and, once again, had been painfully and loudly reminded of the fact that I played and joked and teased him with my words because I did not know how to do so with my body.
My husband had never satisfied my carnal desires as my first boyfriend had. Such carnal satisfaction is marked by a wanting for more, a wanting that only grows and doesn’t subside. With my husband, each time we came together, it felt right to have it end when it ended. I did not think about the next time. I did not feel shy to ask for more when it had not been enough. But with Zak it was different.
Zak tempted and teased. He never went as far as to make me worry about pregnancy, but he did not hold back overt and almost sinister advances in my down below, which announced the power he had over my destiny, the power men had over women. When he reached for my mouth it peeled apart so effortlessly for his tongue to bless and conquer. My soul, as it were, felt as though it were being sucked out of me and into him. I had no choice in the matter. And when this was not enough, he would park his car, or bring me to his room, where my neck and collar, as extensions of my mouth and throat, would be red wine to his sophisticated palate. Each part had its own most delightful way of drinking and he would experiment until he found it.
Breasts. They are my husband’s favorite part of any female body. He has never once told me he liked mine, though he rests his head in-between them often. I enjoy loving him this way. They say girls turn into mothers when they become lovers.
Zak was a different story. He twisted and contorted his body so his mouth could contain my breasts at maximum capacity. He gave them this respect, this royal treatment. He made the effort to make them feel wanted, to make me feel desired. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received from anyone is when he said, “You have beautiful breasts.” I breathed this in like an oxygen mask. I had always thought mine were tiny, as Asian breasts usually are, but Zak had been with white women, so he knew.
Forgiveness is not something I have experienced, until one evening, when my husband and I laid together side by side, on our bed, in our own house, my head leaning where his armpit was. I allowed my index and middle finger to run down his chest and to his abs, stopping just before where his sensitivities began. This was not my common practice with him, and my mind drifted back to when I touched Zak in this way. I knew my husband could feel the difference and held my breath to prepare for his physical separation from me. Would he think I was dirty, that I had been unfaithful?
But he held his position, and we held this space between us, searching and learning anew how our bodies had been touched in the past, and how we had known affection and love. He stroked my back with an understanding that not only questioned my loyalty but sought it. He was on the verge of demanding but held back. I knew, though he did not communicate this to me.
When sufficient time had passed for us to come to mutual understanding, he turned slightly to face me. I couldn’t look into his eyes – I was scared – but caressed his stubbled chin with my gaze. He was feeling hot and warm inside, his jewels down below were ready to go, I knew. But with the greatest gentleness and respect he hesitated to ask, something he did not usually do.
“Can we still do it tonight?” he said.
With my okay, we became one that night. Just like at mass we started with acknowledging our sins, and just like at mass I felt the mercy and healing forgiveness of God. He embraced me and accepted all of me. He forgave me and wanted my forgiveness too. We submitted ourselves to each other and entered each other’s soul in a way I had never experienced before. He was my redeemer, my spirit animal, my possibility, my future.
I look straight into my husband’s eyes very often now. I like how they can contain so much. I used to think food was to me as sex is to men, essential, necessary and satisfaction incarnate. But now I realize there is an even more powerful comparison to be recognized. Forgiveness is my poison, my cup of tea, my avalanche of emotions. It can satisfy and overcome me any day. I will never not need it, and you will never hear me say, “Let’s save this for another day.”
My husband likes to keep things while I like to throw things away. The thrifty hoarder married a modern minimalist. How does such a marriage work? Every debate about an item to throw or keep opens up a unit of work. Just yesterday I washed an army green T-shirt he’s had for over twenty years. It’s out of fashion, the collar is fraying beyond even the lower standards acceptable for pajama use, and it does not even fit his shoulders properly. I detest the T-shirt and suggest, urge, implore him to throw it away. But he refuses. I make a fuss as he continues to stand his ground. The T-shirt stays because it had been with him before I came into his life. A token from his young adulthood. Sentimentality is the easiest and most effective argument against throwing something away. How does one argue with the heart?
But sentimentality is of the past, and the past cannot be changed. Shoved into the cozy corners of our hearts and minds as life hurries on, available to be taken out at will. How often do we think of appropriating our memories, in the same way a rich man appropriates his assets? It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. How do we get to our present and future if not by saying goodbye to our past?
My phone buzzed. A message came in.
Zak: How are you?
I froze. It was the first morning of the new year. My husband was in the toilet brushing his teeth. We’re going to McDonalds for breakfast soon. Should I reply? Curiosity got the better of me.
Me: Good, you?
Zak: Where are you now?
I wasn’t sure I wanted him to come find me like he used to. That was a long time ago. In fact, I wasn’t sure that’s what he meant at all.
Me: Singapore, you?
Zak: Yishun Community Hospital. Can you come visit me?
I heard the toilet flushing. I smiled at my husband as he emerged but it was a kind of practiced upturn of the lip corners, nothing of the free-flowing happiness sort. Zak hated hospitals. He would avoid them at all cost. Unless of course, he had been forced to stay.
“Something’s wrong,” my husband said.
I put my phone into my husband’s palm and said, “Can we go to Yishun for breakfast instead?” He unlocked my phone, saw the top message in my WhatsApp and frowned.
“Do you really need to go?” he said.
I considered his advice. Was this a need to visit Zak, an old flame, someone whom I’m not bound to in any way, whom I’ve not made any promises to?
Yes. Yes it was a need. It was a need to see how this man is, this man whom I once loved in the body, who once loved me back tenderly, with the lurch of his back, the firm press of his finger pads, the hunger of his mouth. It was a need to see him because he had reached out first, after all these years, with so simple a request.
“Can you come with me?” I said.
I didn’t recognize the man I saw on the hospital bed. His face was sunken, wrapped around his protruding cheek bones, and hair in matted wisps stuck to his temples. Was there a body between those blue sheets?
“Anne,” Zak said, his voice stronger and more certain than I’d expected.
Glancing up at my husband, his full head of black hair, his glowing complexion, his fleshy, comforting presence, I reached him through his eyes, sharing the sadness that had come to me seeing Zak this way. Then we walked closer to the hospital bed, closer to Zak, me leading the way.
“Heyee, how are you,” I said. “What happened?”
“Thanks for coming, Anne,” he said, then took a sharp wheezing breath, shutting his eyes for a brief moment before opening them to look at me again. The eyes had gotten old, older than I remember, in a good way, with its ambition tempered by gentleness. “Liver cancer. Guess all that drinking caught up with me.”
“So sorry, Zak…” I leaned forwards, stopping at a cordial distance, conscious of my husband being there. “What can I do for you?”
“The red dress. Have you worn it since?”
I did not know I had taken a step back until my husband cried out “Sorry I stepped on your foot,” I said, and he blinked his eyes and smiled lightly as if to say, “No matter”. Looking at Zak again and registering his question, I was suddenly conscious of my clumsy waistline and flabbier arms. I was so, so ugly. “No,” I said.
“Do you know it?” Zak asked my husband.
“No, bro,” he said, without flinching, then added, “Anne has many dresses.”
“She was stunning in that red dress,” Zak said. “The prize on my arm. All the lawyers in the guild were lost for words. I won every argument. Good economy.”
My husband turned towards me, eyebrows strained inward and his mouth downturned. What a jerk, he seemed to mean. To think I used to take such words as a compliment. I was not someone to be loved; I was only a prize being paraded about, like cash, to win arguments, supposedly. Did Zak ever make a bet to fuck me?
It was piercing cold in the hospital room. My eyes tried to latch onto things – a heart rate monitor, a fruit basket, a bed railing – as the rest of the room swirled like I was about to be consumed within a black hole. Then I felt my husband’s palm on my elbow.
“She loves having eyes on her,” Zak said, with wicked sniggers. “You ought to bring her out more.” He kept his attention on my husband, as if looking out for any signs of weakness. Zak was always looking out for wear and tear. He used to love when a button came undone on my shirt, and my faded grey shorts.
My husband did not blink, or wince, or move away. Perhaps he felt that it would be unfair to bully back, to shame a poor man in a dreadful hospital gown. One should always fight fair. But Zak picked on someone far bigger than him, in size and heart. I saw how wrong I was, once again, to even think there was gentleness in his ambition. His idea of winning was still about everyone else losing.
Zak shut his eyes, this time squeezing out a few drops of tears. Maybe it wasn’t tears, just watery eyes. Opening his eyes again, he turned his head towards us, looking at my husband, looking at me.
“So, so happy for you Anne. You deserve every good thing,” he said.
I reached for my husband’s hand, hidden from Zak’s view. He squeezed mine, coming closer, attaching his body to mine. His presence gave me courage to keep standing, even though my legs felt like jelly.
“Will you forgive me?” Zak asked.
There was a lump in my throat. The room with six hospital beds and translucent curtains seemed to shift a little. I hung on to my husband’s arm for support. “There’s nothing to forgive,” I said to Zak, but remembering the red dress, how he moved his arm up my thigh, lifting my skirt in front of a roomful of creepy lawyers, licking my neckline like I was an ice popsicle on a hot sweaty day. I turned into nothing that day, when he said, “So you see, believe it, she’s mine.”
There were uncomfortable shifting of feet, awkward laughs in certain corners, and talking behind my back. Had I really been in that room? Who were those men?
“But of course I forgive you.” I lied.
“Thank you,” he said, with a high-pitched wheeze, followed by the shutting of eyes. “It’s the first day of the new year. There must be somewhere else you want to be.”
I looked at my husband. He put a strong arm around my waist and held me. “Take care, bro,” he said to Zak. We left, obediently. Still it was a new experience, to be leaving Zak, while he stayed where he was, unable to move on. I gripped my husband’s hand a little tighter.
Serene works at Singapore Association for Mental Health, educating the public on self-care and building resilience in stressful times. Her short stories have been published in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Business Mirror Philippines. She has a B.A. in Development Studies from Brown University and a M.A. in Creative Writing from studies at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, and is happily married.