Fiction / March 2013 (Issue 20)

Love Is No Big Truth

by Amanda Lee Koe, art by Mia Funk

The End of Summer, oil on canvas, 142 x 205 cm


There is no such thing in the world, as I cannot live without you; you cannot live without me. The earth spins. Time passes. Rice is eaten. What is there to disprove?

He left me a year after the accident that left my face misaligned. A public bus rammed into me at the bus stop from the wet market. The chickens and vegetables in my red plastic bag fell to the floor, and the last thing I saw were the tomatoes rolling out onto the road, turning quickly into red pulp under car tyres.

When I woke up in the hospital after surgery, the first thing he said was, Why were you so careless?

And I knew that what he meant wasn't I could have lost you. What he meant was that I would be costing him a lot of money, for the operation and the hospital stay.


No, our generation, we don't do divorces. We're the make-do generation, the one that went through the war. We ate sweet potatoes three meals a day, and that was when we were lucky. When I told my daughter this years ago—she was complaining about my cooking, too bland—she said, If I had to eat sweet potatoes for three meals a day, I'd die.

So even when you can't make do anymore—finally he said to me, I can't get off on that, referring to my misaligned face—what you do is to leave the surface intact, even as you tunnel far beneath the soil. He said it as if I were the one who was looking to be pleased sexually.

We're still legally married. He didn't even have the courtesy to want to move out, even when he brought her home. She was the B-grade sort: heavy make-up over wrinkles, sparkly jersey over love handles, a ponderous accent later placed as Szechuan. He didn't have that much money. Anyway, he only managed to get her because that was the year he could get his savings out of his CPF.

I moved out in the end, to save myself and my daughter some face. That woman was hanging her soiled, lacy red bra and panty set in the common toilet. Drinking the tea I prepared. Using the chipped floral mug that was my daughter's.


I wasn't.

He was my only sexual partner. I don't know about him. I was only eighteen when we were married.

I never had an orgasm. It wasn't so irksome, before my menopause, sex. We saw it as part of a wife's duty to her husband—isn't it? Maybe because I've never had an orgasm, I won't understand. What you don't know, you can't crave.

No, I would never try to touch myself. No, it doesn't arouse my curiosity, not now at least. And not before, because I always saw it as something shameful…But we had to do it to carry on the line. You had to do it for your husband. Always for someone else.

I'd never even really held his hand. We only had the mindset of primary school girls. I don't know what was going on in my head, that first night. The only thing I remember: it hurt, but I didn't bleed. He was concerned because of this. He asked me if I was sure I was a virgin, and I said Heavens, yes. He wanted me to swear it on my father's honour and my mother's deceased soul. I wanted to slap him, but I swore instead, because if we were going to start it off the wrong foot, it would be difficult to live together. Pride is not difficult to swallow when you weigh the odds. I've always been level-headed.

There was no such preparation…To pop out a baby the next year was something so unexpected, almost, even after carrying it for nine months. Not knowing how to care for it.

They say motherhood is instinctive; I think it's a lie. But repeat it long enough and all the women come to think it's true, come to be able to take care of this ball of plasma and bones they expel.

I think there was this old Hongkee film, Kangaroo Man or something like that? The lead character was carrying a baby to term in a pouch on his leg. I can't remember if he had a lover—he must have had one, a beautiful one. It was showing on TV one weekend afternoon in the 70s. My husband, my daughter and I were watching it. After some time when the plot became apparent, he reached over for the remote and turned it off. I said, It's just a film. He said it was disrespectful, that it would impart the wrong values to our daughter. We didn't argue. We just sat in silence and stared at the black screen for some time, all of us still thinking about the Kangaroo Man.

As an Asian wife you learn to hold your tongue. Your husband is always right; it isn't worth the fight. Sometimes, when I lost my head for just a bit and retorted, he would say, Who puts the bread on the table? Shut the fuck up. Perhaps it's different now, now that ladies hold down jobs as much as men. I don't know—is it any different?


The last time I saw him was at our daughter's wedding. That was about five years ago—two years after the accident, a year after he left me. We sat together, because we'd not told anyone, much less the in-laws, about our estrangement—why make things difficult for your child? I'd rather suck it up, like a sponge over some fecundity.

We didn't speak to one another, only smiled congenially—if a little stiffly—in sync, at the relevant moments. His hairline had receded further, and, when we were served the shark's fin soup in the small porcelain bowl, he did an absurd thing. He started unscrewing something in his hands under the table, and when everyone was making the most banter, he slid the bowl towards him and emptied the untouched soup into a small thermos.

I turned to him quizzically, appraisingly.

It's for her, he explained gruffly, coarse complexion reddening slightly, She wasn't happy I would be attending with you. Said I was to bring back the shark's fin.

I couldn't stop laughing, I never laughed so hard my whole life. I was always restrained, but something broke.

Our in-laws turned towards me, bemusedly. My husband whom I no longer lived with had already hastily stowed the thermos.

What's the joke? my daughter's father-in-law asked affably. He looked from my face to my husband's.

Men, I managed, through my laughter, Women.

When I got home, I lay down—that was when I still had a bed—without removing my make-up or my banquet-going dress, and began sobbing.

Was that bastard going soft with age, was the allure of younger meat that ardent, or what? He would never have done something like that for me, not even in our salad days. But then again, we never had a courtship.

No, it wasn't jealousy, because jealousy is love and even then I was certain I had no more feelings for him—if I even had any to begin with. Companionship through time, I suppose, but not love, I don't think.

It was competitiveness.



We grew up along the same lane. Platonic neighbours, occasional playmates in the village. This was the only reason why we got married—proximity and the elapsing of time—and this was a good reason in its day. Is that laughable? My uncle—whose care I came under after my parents died—said we'd spent too much time together, and that I would have been devalued in the eyes of other prospective suitors, so the practicable thing to do, clearly, was to get married.

My uncle arranged to meet his parents, and the marriage was decided upon over a dim sum dinner downtown at which neither he nor I was present. Eating out at a restaurant was considered an extravagance for kampung dwellers like us, but it was an extravagance executed in necessity: both sides wanted to show that they could afford it.

An almanac was consulted, a date set. The men shook hands, as if sealing a favourable barter. If my mother were still alive, the mothers might have smiled at each other—reservedly, but calculatingly—both of them with mainly housework on their minds. His mother: Now I'll have a daughter-in-law to clean the house. My mother: Now I'll have to clean the house on my own.


There was no romance inherent.

And the funny thing was, the lack thereof didn't strike us as strange. When I say us, when I say we, I believe I speak for a good number of women my age. You don't have to take my word for it—go speak to another woman my age.


Romance was the stuff of the movies.

We paid 50 cents for this on a monthly basis, to see it transpire between Lin Dan and Qin Han on the big screen, weekly if we could afford it. We tied handkerchiefs to the seat to mark them as taken when we went outside to get kacang putih.

We never went with our husbands. We went on our own. It was female bonding more than anything else. Not that we were bonding, together. We were separate beings, but we sighed at the same parts, laughed at the same parts, teared at the same parts.

You could seek out the gaze of another woman under the dim lights after the credits rolled, momentarily, and find understanding there and feel less alone.


Do I feel alone now?

Every single day.

For a while, I was trying to catch the eye of every older man. At the void deck, at the grocery store, at the neighbourhood park. I wanted someone in my life again. After a long time, one day, someone looked back at me. The moment our eyes locked, I felt an immense, deadweight tiredness in my bones. When he stood up from the park bench and walked towards me, I fled.

I know how it's going to feel after a year. And I've already gone through that, and whilst a part of me would do it again, just for the companionship, the good parts that weren't even great, another part of me knows this will only bring exhaustion. I haven't the energy for it. Love is no big truth.

For a while, I was lying down so much, I forgot to bathe for days. I forgot to eat. My daughter would come visit me—she stays with her in-laws, they have a terrace house—and she would fan her nose when she talked to me, when she cajoled me to eat the rice sets she bought over. But always, in a few hours, she would leave. Even if I didn't eat, even if I didn't bathe.

After a while, I began bathing and eating whenever she came. Not to make her feel better, but to make myself feel better. Because if the situation were somehow reversed, I would never leave. I would make her better. They would have to rip me from her bedside.

I threw my bed away. Depression is easy when you have a bed.

I'm well now. The floor is a good sleep.


The curious thing was that, as a child, I thought you could die of a broken heart.

I'd never even seen my parents speak to one another, except at dinnertime. My mother would say, Dinner's ready. My father would grunt. Then we would eat. I thought my mother hated my father, but when he died, she jumped into his coffin.

It was the night of his funeral, whilst the priest was leading us through the rites. It took three uncles to pry her out of there. She left nail marks on the interior wood, and she smeared my father's make-up, the flesh-tone foundation the undertaker puts on, the lip colour.

My uncles found her in the river three days later. There were rivers then; we lived in a kampung. The word that went out was: here be a woman who loved her husband that much. The truth was probably that my mother was so defined by the existence of my father that when he died, she couldn't see anything else before her.

She thought that she had to die with him. She knew nothing about Indian brides on funeral pyres. He'd closed his fist around her, she'd let him, and now there was so much white space of possibility around her she couldn't breathe.


The first morning I woke on the floor, freshly bedless, I woke with these words in my head, as if someone had left me a note in a locker in an anonymous hand—loneliness is freedom.

I wondered why I hadn't been turned to this sooner.

I realised:

I'm not bound to anything. My daughter has completed her degree and gotten married, my husband has left me for a woman from Mainland China. Finally, for once, I can do whatever I want. Maybe that, to you, sounds ridiculous. But you come from a generation that has an inbuilt concept of the self, that has always placed yourselves first. So you have no problems defining your individual selves even in the presence of, in relation to, other people. It's as natural as breathing.

But for us, relations are stifling because we were born into thinking we were bound to servitude. To have people in your life, to have relations, was to have duties, was to serve. We can't shake it off. We can't be the ones to turn our backs. But when you are the one who has been left behind—the truth is that you have been set free.

I was independent of being a wife, a mother, even a woman. I was simply, me. I felt an incredible elation course through my body.

And it wasn't like I had to do something outrageous or fanciful or even modestly expressive to sustain this elation, to accentuate these thoughts, to mark my newfound worldview. I went about my daily routines as if nothing had changed—and indeed, nothing had changed, but I knew that was the start of something new, and that this something would last me through the end of my days.

You won't need it now, you are young and beautiful—and beauty is subjective, but who is to dispute that youth is beauty—in a time and place that makes sense to you. But one day, it might be all that you need, so dig a hole and bury it like a bone, and don't say no one told you—loneliness is freedom.

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