Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

The Depth of Weight

by O Thiam Chin

They wanted to try it for the third time, about a year after their last attempt. They felt they were ready again and now knew what to expect. At least, the man did; he knew what was at stake. The woman wasn't sure; she had her doubts at first, but somehow managed to convince herself that they should proceed, two weeks after the man picked up a brochure, from another provider, on his way back from work.

He was a mechanic in a factory that manufactured synthetic arms and legs for war veterans. He was a steady, dependable worker, one who had never breached any rules or earned a red mark on his docket. In fact, he had just earned his latest merit, a yellow star, for his outstanding work efficiency, which was in the ninetieth percentile, and along with a plaque, he also received a cash bonus of three thousand dollars. The man thought the money would help in their trying for a child. They could pay half the fees and settle the remaining amount in installments. One blurb on the brochure indicated that the initial deposit would be waived, and the clinic even offered a free first-time check-up. But there was a special condition: the woman would have to leave her womb at the clinic for a month for "checks and observation" in order to keep it in the "most optimal condition for gestation." In place of it, the woman would have a temporary standard-issue womb at a nominal fee, which came with an unlimited replacement guarantee.

The success rate for the procedure was one hundred per cent, according to another blurb, and some couples even came back for their second or third child. Their testimonials seemed real and heartfelt, and the man, looking at the photos of these couples with a newborn baby in their arms, was more than persuaded that this time it would work. They would be parents at last, and they would never want for anything ever again. They would finally be happy.

The woman, on the other hand, was more cautious and guarded in her response, as she did not want to get her hopes up too high. She remembered, too vividly and powerfully, how she had felt at the failure of their last two attempts, how the pain she had experienced—and sometimes, in her dreams, still experienced—was like a pair of sharp claws tearing at her insides, ripping them to shreds; it was a pain she did not have the language to describe, let alone tell it to the man. It was something she knew she had to bear alone, for the man's sake, for she did not want it to taint his optimism or his decade-long wish for a child. She desperately needed him to keep their dream alive, especially in her moments of fear and doubt. She needed to feel what he could summon up so naturally and so easily: a burgeoning sense of hope.

Once they had decided, the man called the hotline and made an appointment for a check-up the following week. And in the days leading up to the scheduled day, they kept themselves busy at work, and even volunteered for overtime slots. The woman was a seamstress at a factory that sewed pieces of human skin together and sold the ensembles at affordable prices to centennials on the open market. With the fast-ageing population, there was a surge in demand for these taut new skins, which were guaranteed to hold their shape for at least ten years. Competition had been extremely tough, but it was a recession-proof industry and demand had been projected to grow.

When the woman started working at the factory eighteen years ago, she had been fascinated with these skins, with their variety of shades, sizes and fits. She had seen them on display at some of the shops along the main thoroughfare of their housing estate, and often wondered which of the pieces were her handiwork. Sometimes, during moments of boredom or inspiration, she would add finer details to the skin she was working on, something that was not apparent to the passing glance—a double-stitch along the fold of skin near the armpit, or a slight protuberance at the back of the knee. Even so, she could not understand the appeal of these new skins; to her, a well-weathered skin was one that faithfully carried with it its scars and other natural flaws, the visible markers of its passing through time. She was well aware that her own skin at forty-five was not what it had been five, ten years ago, but she did not mind. Sometimes, when she stood in the shower, she would place her hand on her stomach, which was still firm and flat, and tried to imagine how it would be stretched if she were pregnant. She had observed the sagging, lumpy bodies of her co-workers, mothers with three, four kids, and felt a keen pang of envy. Their bodies had been transformed by their pregnancies—and who could say that their body had not been altered in one way or another by its intimate entanglement with another living body—and later by the birth of their children. A body shaped by a life growing inside it—to the woman, it was a small price to pay for such a profound, transformative act. And now, she would have a chance at this, to be moulded inside out, to be a mother. Sometimes the reckless hope burgeoning inside her seemed so unreal, so unbelievable, that she had to stop whatever she was doing, and hold her heart still for some time until the moment passed. Unlike the man, the woman would not let herself feel the full extent of a future happiness that could be taken from her.

On the morning of their appointment, they walked to the clinic as the weather was cool and balmy, with cumulus clouds covering the entire sky. The clinic assistant processed their registration and ushered them into an empty consultation room. The man and the woman studied the posters on fertility and birth control on the walls, unable to settle their eyes on anything else in the room. A man in a white coat entered, and sitting behind a table, began to ask them questions, making notes on a digital pad in front of him. Even though he directed most of the questions at the woman, it was the man who answered almost all of them. They had already worked out most of these questions between them over the past few days, and there was nothing the man didn't know about the woman. The woman looked down at her hands in her lap and often turned to the man to acknowledge his replies. With the questions done, the man took out an authorisation letter from his pocket, signed by the couple's respective work collectives, which had given their go-ahead on their request to start a family. The doctor, barely taking a glance at the letter, filed it into a folder, and told the woman to get into a paper gown behind the curtains. While changing, the woman glanced at her flat stomach and placed her hand there for a few seconds. Her thoughts were scattered, unable to coalesce into anything clear or concrete. A nurse came and led the woman down a long corridor, and another nurse approached the man with some more forms to sign. The man was told to wait outside; the woman gave him a pliant smile before slipping into the room. It would take only an hour, the nurse said before turning away.

The man, unable to contain his anxiety, paced the corridor, occasionally staring at the door of the room. He thought about the corridors in the other clinics they had been to for their previous two attempts: how alike they were, grey flooring polished to a shine. Looking down at the floor now, he noticed the swirls of brush strokes across the rough surface, which triggered a memory of a painting he had once seen in a gallery, drawn by a long-dead postmodernist artist. "The depth and weight of infinite space" was the title: the artist's interpretation of the countless galaxies that lay behind other galaxies, the swirls and whorls of stars spreading across the dark expanse. He remembered how he had felt when he first saw it, the rush of awe and sadness and exquisite delight, as if he had been confronted by something so great, so boundless, he could only grasp at the little he could see or understand in small, greedy handfuls. How little and insignificant he had felt, and how fearfully alive, too: a tiny, infinitesimal spark of dust but also a witness, partaking in the grand, immeasurable history of time.

The woman came out of the room five minutes before the hour was up, her pale hands on her stomach, and the man was suddenly moved by the gesture. He rushed up and held her right arm, and the woman gently settled her weight on him. The man tried to decipher the blank look on the woman's face, which could mean so many things all at the same time. There were times that the woman was a complete mystery to him, an enigma that repelled any understanding or comprehension. Yet it was also during those times that he had felt an inexplicable protectiveness over her. After making their payment at the registration counter, they walked home in silence.

The woman was quiet for a week after her operation. When the man asked about how she was feeling, the woman would smile weakly and pat him on his hand. She was glad when the man was away for work during the day, and she had the quiet flat to herself. Most mornings, she would lie in bed, eyes closed, and think about the inner workings of her body, of the temporary womb working in tandem with the rest of her, and how strangely removed she was from all that was functioning in her body, its workings and its secrets. She felt like a ghostly resident in the house of her body, assigned with only a bare room for her thoughts, which was really what she felt she needed at the time, nothing more. Her mind sometimes wandered to the day she would have her own womb back, how it would have been prepped for insemination, for a new life. She would hold onto this thought, as she got out of bed and began her day.

The man, hurrying home after work every day, would find the woman at the stove, cooking up a beef stew or stirring a pot of black chicken broth. He would take over her chores and make her leave the kitchen. Their days came and passed with quiet, purposeful acts and a dogged consideration for each other's well-being. The clinic rang a week before the procedure, and the man dutifully went down to make his contribution. He thought about the woman, her hands and her full dusky-pink lips as he ejaculated into the receptor. He was given a hot Milo afterwards, and made to sign more forms. Before he left, the receptionist reminded him of the next appointment. At home, he hugged the woman for a long time, trembling with an immense sense of relief and thanksgiving.

The morning of the procedure, they were up early. Each had a cup of black coffee. The man nudged the woman to eat something light, a half-boiled egg or some biscuits, to keep her strength up, but she wasn't hungry. Her mind was so far away that she wasn't able to pull it together. The man studied her with some detachment, but stayed close. They took along a small bag of necessities, though they had been told that it was a day surgery and the woman could recuperate at home.

At the clinic, they were taken to a different surgical room, and the woman was asked to undress and lie on an operating table; the man waited outside. This time, he sat on a steel chair and started to mumble under his breath. He surprised himself with the string of words coming out of him; then he remembered: it was a litany of prayers. He had heard it from his grandmother when he was eight or nine years old. How was it possible that he remembered the words? It had been such a long time ago, and yet he had somehow culled it from the depth of his memories, and it was as if the words had been branded in his head all along. No matter: the words were having a calming effect, taming his monkey mind.

When he was allowed to enter the room afterwards, the woman was already on her feet, fitting her dress over her body. The man caught a glimpse of the sutures that crept across her stomach and pelvis, and looked away when the woman caught him staring. She mustered a wan smile, and the man went up to assist her, his heart skipping waywardly.

The woman slept most of the time for the first few days, and whenever she woke, the man was always sitting at a chair near the bed, and he would rise to go to her side. In her dreams, the woman often found herself hurling through an immense darkness like a dying star, with not a single sound around her, and when she woke, she would move her hand across her stomach and hold it there in a fist. She would not give up this time, and she would put up a fight, even if it was with her own body.

One night, the woman surfaced from one of her dreams with a raging despair, her mind torn up by spikes of light. The man was immediately by her side, holding her hand, hushing.

I am afraid, the woman said, after calming down.

It's OK. We can do this, said the man, his eyes on her.

The woman sighed, and began to weep. Please, not this time, she said.

No, not this time.

The man held the woman fast in his grip, and even as she threw herself fully into her sadness, the man was still holding on, for both of them.

ImageO Thiam Chin is the author of five collections of short fiction: Free-Falling Man, Never Been Better, Under The Sun, The Rest Of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, and Love, Or Something Like Love. He was a recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2012, and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. His debut novel, Now That It's Over, won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, as well as the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Book Awards. His second novel, Fox Fire Girl, was published in 2017.


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.