by Kit Lea Cheang
She called her scent neroli. Orange leaves. Tangy citrus with a twist. He first caught a whiff on a bus ride home together. After Buona Vista and before Clementi, she leant over to say something, her hair brushing his ear. A shot of tangerine up his nostrils, acidic and tart. An intrusion so powerful it felt like an assault. He was swimmy in the head, suddenly. What was she saying? Something about their impudent boss and excel sheets, and their colleague Max and his neon orange jumpers and how the highlight of her day was her fish-head beehoon lunch at their office food court. Months later, he would be privy to that scent—on her sweaters, under her arms, smothered in her drawers of lace dresses and cotton underwear. He would trace its source to a tiny bulbous gold bottle, perched on her jewellery drawers, in front of her makeup mirror. When they first touched, lips-to-lips, he would press his nose against her neck, inhale a citrus that spiked his nostrils and cut through a cold. That day, however, he alighted bus 196 stumbling and perplexed at this unfamiliar sensation, heady on the memory of her scent.
A cigarette is apparel. He carried a packet, tucked in his briefcase, as visible as a necklace. He spent his lunch breaks in the back alley of his office, thin paper roll in his lips. He would stand in a jagged line of smokers, not unlike a row of urinals. He desired not the nicotine high, nor the taste of tar. Rather, men sharing a ritual. In silent cohesion. A collective affirmation of individual masculinity.
With her, his cigarettes persisted in his briefcase but made fewer appearances in his life. She was an exquisite substitute, a placebo of a highest luxury. With her, he stood taller. His chest grew. He looked moguls in the eyes. She unlocked in him latent power. He felt more invincible than ever. Her existence, in the context of him, validated something within. She was talisman to his selfhood.
He was hungry. Her three-room flat was a confectionary of flavours—pepper and spice. She squatted on her kitchen floor, in a hello kitty apron, pounding chili padi into sambal with a pestle. Japanese beef broiled in a pot, pepper and soy sauce and sweet mirin wine. On the day he lost his job, she cooked him a thick beef casserole, dribbled with sambal and tamarind and scallions. Are you OK? She asked. Don't be hurt, everything will be fine. Her gentle voice was Tiger Balm. He refused to look at her, injured. In the flickering dim, he scooped broth from his porcelain bowl, a gingery halo of cooked beef wafting up, soothing him.
The pool smelled of chlorine and human fluids. Bodies wavered like jellyfish below the water's surface. Refraction merged blue light and skin into tentacles of melted flesh. She swam laps, while he stood at the pool's edge, unmoving.
As she climbed out of the pool, oil glistened on her forehead. Her bikini hung limp on small breasts; her stomach folded like Play-Doh. Heat flowed to his cheeks, and south. His lower belly tightened with something like desire, or shame. He pushed his head underwater, losing sight, before resurfacing. There she was, laughing as she gazed at a boy in a rubber ducky. Her laugh, that luminous expression of delight, now morphed into a grotesque triangulation of skin, mouth and teeth held agape, an alligator's jaw. He submerged and resurfaced and looked at her again; this time, she watched the distant sky in pensive thought. Lyrical, until a splash of water disrupted the image, and there she was scratching acne-ed skin.
Poeticism was the elusive evening sun and vulgarity the murky sky beneath pink satin. To be in lust is to see the other distilled in elegiac perfection. All illusion. Hypnosis. Now broken. In time, he started to see the revolting human underneath.
Above and under. Above and under. Each time he resurfaced he saw a different her. Each breath invoked a new lover. She—extension to his flesh, yet utterly autonomous—was in continuous rebirth. Shame. Lust. Disgust. Love. Fear. Hate. With each blink, he saw his lover reappear, again and again, in restless incantation. Each frame of her, lasting barely a second, evoked something wild or placid in him. He couldn't decide if he wanted to take her in his arms at once and make love to her in chlorine cold, or dash to the urine-stained public showers and stick a finger down his throat. He looked away.
The last time they had sex, she bled like a virgin. Her moon and their lovemaking had aligned. Her body screamed orgasm and mother at the same time. She pushed him away, scrambling for a tampon. He bit his lip to stop himself from shouting out and penetrated skin, tasting blood. The scent of her menstrual blood aroused him, yet filled him with disgust. On their white sheets, a crimson angel opened her wings.
When she left him, he burnt incense. Smoke rose, woody like oak, earthy and choking. That night, he folded into his sheets, like a chrysalis. He lay with his last memory of her, defiant and running, an amber mark on her elbow, raw and peeling. From afar, it looked like a butterfly. Freed. Why do we hurt the ones we love? He didn't mean to. He didn't mean to lose his temper. He didn't mean to lift the pot of chicken stew from her stove, raise it in the air. He regretted it the moment it touched her, the instant she had cried out. She had barely provoked him—had merely suggested that he try harder in his search for new work.
Under the radiance of a soft lamp, in the empty space on his mattress, a bulbous gold bottle lay, half-empty. On his pillow, he caught a whiff—sharp at first, then lighter and dissolving. Citrus. Zesty, tangy, a strong burn. He found it hard to breathe. Everything was tangerine.
Saltwater pricked his eyes. From the smoke, of course. From the smoke.
Kit Lea Cheang is a Singaporean undergraduate in Yale University, where she dabbles in creative nonfiction, fiction, journalism and playwriting. She writes to investigate the complexities of love, human relationships, and personal identity, and is currently spellbound by Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard. At Yale, Cheang performs with Jook Songs, a spoken word group, and writes for Yale Daily News. She is most inspired by long walks, good conversations, human oddities, city life, and scenic train rides.