An hour ago, when The Woman was unlocking her front door, the girl in the apartment next door greeted her with a couple of oranges slung in a plastic bag. She had been sitting on a little stool in the hallway, fanning herself with an old flyer, waiting for The Woman to come home. When asked about the sudden hospitality, the girl eagerly relayed news of her engagement to a good man.
You see, her family sold reproductions of designer watches in the marketplace. He had been looking for an imitation Rolex as an amusing souvenir, and happened to find a girl with a pretty smile and an exciting personality. She learned that he had been studying Chinese for over a decade; had been married for eight years, but was now divorced with one teenaged son. That morning, before his flight, he had dropped by with a diamond ring and a bag of oranges. He had taken her hands in his and promised to return in a month to take her to America. They would live together in his beautiful house by the beach. She couldn’t stop crying.
And now, The Woman sits on the edge of her bed combing her hair and thinking about how pretty the girl’s pedicure was. She frees her knots from the teeth of the plastic tortoiseshell comb, tearing them loose into the wastebasket, on top of a picture of a doe-eyed celebrity smiling up at her husband. He’s looking away from the camera, but his broad back and tall stature are enough to insinuate his good looks. They both have shiny, shiny brown hair.
Her own once soft ebony waves have shrivelled and snarled over the course of fifteen years of careless heat and colour damage. If she could do it all over again, she would have never messed with any of it. She gathers her hair at the nape of her neck and twists the whole thing into a bun. It pulls painfully on her forehead and the sides of her face; but, this is the desired look. She had seen her cousin in Australia doing so in a video call three weeks ago. And, if her middle-aged cousin, married with two children, could pull off this look, she was sure she could do it too. And better.
Maternity had filled out her cousin’s figure and the Australian sun had warmed her complexion. The Woman powders her nose in front of the mirror. She, however, is pale and slim. It’s the only redeeming feature of her person.
‘You look so good for thirty-six!’
She would always deny it with feigned modesty before simpering and taking the compliment. Afterwards, her brow would always furrow, and a hollow emptiness would begin to churn in her core. She raises her palm to her forehead, sighs and stands up from her bedside table. Out of her tiny window, she watches a group of school kids, curiously unfatigued by the humidity, chat with unrestrained enthusiasm. There are two boys and two girls. They are all smoking.
One of the boys holds her attention. His eyes are big and bright and he stands a little straighter, a little taller, than the rest of the gang. He’s laughing and teasing his girlfriend. And suddenly The Woman is reminded of another girl. Just seventeen. One wearing a borrowed blue and orange tracksuit, sour and limp from hours of track practice. And the boy to whom it belonged, gently intertwining himself with her as she lay underneath the mosquito net canopy.
The other boy leads everyone up a flight of narrow concrete stairs, into an apartment complex marked by haphazardly overhanging laundry. A faint trail of lingering smoke is the only indication they were ever there. Just like the chill that hung between them once the red bead was forced out. A small world sacrificed for theirs.
The Woman dreads what they could be doing up there.
The Woman arrives late to her aunt’s birthday dinner, side-tracked by a stubborn white hair. The dinner table conversation is already in full swing. They’re all sitting shoulder to shoulder, encircling a carnivorous feast. Her neighbours fill her in. He’s an older man. Malaysian but can speak Chinese. Single. He runs a good American business. You could be a rich American housewife. Your children might not be very good-looking though. But, surely that’s nothing money can’t fix.
The Woman sneaks a look at him. He’s squeezed himself into a pale blue button-up. He has a full head of black hair, which manages to look greasy and crusty at the same time. Teeth are straight; lips glossed in oily sauce. Two black pupils hold her gaze for a split second before flitting away. Whatever meagre appetite she had mustered prior to coming was now gone.
Her aunt leans across the table to arrange a few cuts of chicken in her bowl. ‘Don’t starve yourself on my birthday. Eat!’
The Woman lies in bed with her hands over her swollen stomach. She pinches at it, tugging gently before letting go and relaxing her hands back over her core. It will be gone by morning. She opens her eyes. The only light comes from a tiny orange switch on a nearby extension board. The longer she stares at it, the more she sees its glow oscillating in the darkness; beating too fast for her eyes to register.
She imagines this is what limbo is like. Little red orb suspended in a lonely saline sea. Contorted and blurred by the surging waters. She brushes her wet cheek on the pillow.
He had suggested it when she finally told him after training. What else could she have done?
The orange light burns her eyes and still she won’t look away.
Image by Sarah Jane, used with permission.