Just Like Her
When Cha Cha dies, I am in the living room playing Maple Story on the family desktop. Ma makes the announcement from the kitchen where Cha Cha usually sleeps — your dog is not moving. Your dog is cold. Your dog is dead. Her flat voice bounces off the patterned tiles, ping-ponging until it reaches me, reaches past the roaring in my ears like wind whipping through a high-rise construction site. I do the only thing I can think to do, the rational thing, which is to log out of my game, then open the internet browser to find out what people do with dead animals in their houses. I call the best-reviewed pet cremation company. The uncle on the line promises to come within the hour, and in that hour, I do not once look away from the computer screen.
I am not one of those brats who beg for puppies, then abandon them for their poor grandmas to stumble after. My grandma, I am told, was shot and buried by Japanese soldiers on Changi Beach. I am already thirteen. I learnt responsibility in Primary One, when Cha Cha had tracked urine prints all over the house; it’d taken me four days to identify the sharp, sweet stench on the parquet floor I lounged on after school, and then another two hours to scrub it all away. I took Cha Cha on every walk, picked up every little mound of shit. Brushed out her coat, felt under my pudgy, clumsy fingers the progression of its inky blackness turning to ash, turning powdery with dead skin and old age. I was proud of the way Ma never had to lift a finger.
Now, Ma cradles Cha Cha in her arms and places her, swaddled in my old towel, into the straw-lined crate that the pet cremation uncle has brought. The front gate creaks as he makes to leave, and a sudden hiccup in my heart jolts me out of my chair. Finally, I leave the computer to stroke Cha Cha’s head one last time. Beneath her woolly fur, I can feel the small dome of her skull, hard and cold. This is where I should cry, I know, but my eyes are dry from staring at the computer screen. I don’t dare speak.
After the uncle leaves, I clean Cha Cha’s spot in the kitchen, wiping up the watery mucus of shit and bodily fluids that she expelled in her passing, and scouring away the crusted layers of oil and grime. Soon, the tiles gleam, and even the grout is shades whiter than its surroundings. I sit on this little clean space until the cool tiles warm beneath me, until Ma stretches out her hand towards me.
The house phone is in her hand, and it is ringing. The pet cremation uncle asks when we want to collect Cha Cha’s urn. I look up at Ma who has not moved since passing me the phone. Her wet eyes are on me and her hand is still outstretched, though she has turned her palm to face me and it hovers above my head. I don’t know what she wants; I am not crying, so she does not need to comfort me. I try my best. I tell her, “Ma, I something wrong.”
I did not ask her a question, so she does not answer. I make arrangements to collect Cha Cha’s urn the next day, after my Mandarin enrichment class. I can use the bus tickets my school gave me.
Portrait of a Chinese mother in Singaporean literature: her night-black hair proper and tight in its tight bun, juxtaposed with the wrinkles that meander across her once-pretty face. Her mouth is a puckered smile and her eyes betray a quiet suffering. When her husband runs off with a younger woman, she only gathers her babes into her arms, and finds work. She slaves in the background to provide for her children and dies in the foreground to spur them to seize the opportunities she did not have.
This is what Ma models herself after, when she is called to duty as my mother. She shows up to my Sec One PTA with her short-cropped hair combed back and pinned down with an old, tortoiseshell headband. My hair she has put up in two uneven pigtails, tied with long navy ribbons that match the blue of my pinafore. She smiles in a stricken sort of way, too modest to accept praise for her daughter, though I know she will gloat later. When she puts a hand on my shoulder, the papery touch of her palm makes me jolt and sit straight in the little plastic chair. Mrs. Ganesan, tugging at her gold bangles until they leave pale lines around her dark wrists, might be the form teacher of my graduating class. “I tell you ah, your daughter is intelligent.” But Ma is an English teacher. “If she exhibits any sort of intelligence then I have you to thank for nurturing it.” Her tongue is a spear.
My classmates have mothers who are entirely different, because they are Chinese-educated and anyway, they would not read Singaporean literature even if they could. My classmates’ mothers have dyed perms like the swirling carvings of a lacquered, mahogany altar upon which a porcelain statue of the Goddess of Mercy presides. In sprays of broken English and Hokkien, they cuss out terrible grades, lack of manners, no filial piety. My classmates show off the stripes of mottled bruises left by rattan canes, the starbursts of broken capillaries, and they tell me how lucky I am that my mother never punishes me.
The hole in my chest is cavernous. Its mouth is hidden in the great, fatty folds of my hillsides, and inside it is dark and wet. Often I slip on its glossy, smooth teeth. Water drips on and on and echoes through its hollow depths. Bats hang upside-down from the ribs, anticipatory, ready to take frenzied flight at the first flicker of a torchlight, a screeching plague shitting dirty white splotches onto my diaphragm. And then the hole would be even emptier.
I’m thinking, as I stand by the marble dining table in the dead centre of our living room, I should fill this hole. The silver sheet of medication, most of its little domes punched out, has three pills of chalk left. I’d have to take them with water so that they’d churn into a concrete slush, and then that slush would coat the treacherous surfaces of the cave, slowly but surely forming trails for me to stumble along. With enough time, those trails would become paved. I would have a clear, safe passage to travel through. I could scrub the walls clean. I could chase the bats away with my broom. And then I could rest.
But that’s too slow. I could douse the hole with concrete all at once. Drown the bats before they make a mess of the place, all at once. I pop a pill out. I pop another pill out. I pop the last pill out. Each time they make a loud crackling snap as the foil gives in.
Soon, the sheet is empty, but my chest is a wide expanse, so I look for another sheet beneath the stack of Ma’s bills that I’ve yet to sort through, abandoned Mandarin compositions and the essay that I topped this year’s H2 literature cohort with. Every time I move something, a pen or a stapler or correction tape slips from between the papers and clatters loudly. I bend down to pick up a pencil and when I straighten up, I catch Ma’s eyes. She is looking at me, her hair slicked back with black box dye, the light from the nature documentary flickering across her cautiously vacant face. I look back at her. I realise that she is waiting for me, for some sort of cue, like stage directions in a play. I do not know where else to look. I tell her, they aren’t working fast enough.
Her face, her mouth, barely moves, but I hear her telling me, she says, “Your own medicine, you decide. I know I can trust you.” The careful way she says that, me-di-cine. The slow swivel of her hunched shoulders as she turns back to the TV. I can take a hint. I go to my room so as not to bother her.
I only have a scant fistful of chalk, but this is good. Too much would stiffen my torso to stone, and then I would rupture. Resisting the old party trick to swallow them all at once, I take a single pill between my fingers. I swallow it. Trace its passage by the scrape of its edges in my throat. I take another pill. I swallow that. Steadily, I fill the hole.
When I wake up, there’s crackly, gravelly vomit on one side of my face, in my ear, my hair is clumped and crispy like cow grass. My bed is rough beneath me, mattress naked. Ma stands by my bed, with my sheets bunched up in her veined fists.
(She did this once before, when I was ten and slept in on weekends to well past noon. Her chirping laughter, Cha Cha’s teeny yips, then suddenly I was rolling across my bed as my Digimon sheets were yanked out from under me. I lay pressed against the wall, stunned, incredulous, and then I laughed with her.)
I turn my head away — shame, maybe, but more so that vomit doesn’t get on her mattress. She touches my forehead; I imagine she can feel the curve of my skull, hard and cold. When she pushes my hair aside, I can feel how thin her skin has become, I can feel it shift over the bones in her hand. The knots of her fingers get caught in the knots of my hair. The sunlight is the early type of sunlight, a clean white with no real heat to it. I could doze off.
Ma says, “You need to get up now, if you want to shower before school. You can still make it for the second half. I ironed your uniform.”
So I get up, because Ma rarely tells me to do things, and she rarely bothers with what I wear. The bats are still slumbering anyway, and the bitter stench of bile drives me away from myself.
I cannot find myself in Singaporean literature, but did you know? Singapore is younger than my mother. I come from my mother, so of course I cannot be found. I am not possessed by Malay hantu. Although I wear the all-white uniform of an elite Chinese school, I am failing most of my classes, and possess no keen intelligence just lurking beneath the aesthetic madness. I learn to say fuck you the way ang mohs do, the western way, that special rounded vowel quality of the ‘u’ that you have to scoop out of your chest, so unlike the Singaporean faak u. I stop saying, “I something wrong.” I say, “There is something wrong with me, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what,” and we are all so proud of where sentence composition will get me that we forget to listen to what the words mean.
A month before I move away for university, Ma moves us into a BTO apartment, one of many in the new cluster of government flats. On the first day, we clean up the aftermath of the renovations, the white cement dust and water stains and clinging stench of foreign worker sweat. She makes me walk around the house with a terracotta pot of smoke — dried basil wrapped in newspapers lit aflame, sticks of incense, smouldering ash. She spends the afternoon polishing the marble surface of the kitchen island she had specially commissioned. It has built-in drawers to keep the clutter away. She hopes that it will become the cornerstone of our home, enough space for picturesque meals and her marking and my writing. She leaves the rest of the house to me.
The narrow kitchen is punctuated by a window as wide as the wall. To clean the window, I am perched upon its sill, one foot stretched outside and braced against the drying rack that protrudes from the building like a ladder. As my toes wriggle for purchase among the iron bars, the ladder tells me to climb it, and that it’s never wrong to move forward. When I peer out — a lousy view, just concrete sidewalk, a parking lot, the next apartment building— I am struck by how familiar this scene is, from local movies and TV dramas, how classic a Singaporean suicide it would be if I fell. Ma walks into the kitchen. This scene must not be familiar to her because she picks up a cloth from the counter, and leaves without a second glance.
In my hurry to scramble down, I knock over a bottle of thinner, one of those massive club-like things, its green glass almost black. It shatters across the tiled floor and I can’t stop my downward momentum. Ah — my foot, a shock of ice pain, the floor is a strange watercolour swash of dark crimson seeping through colourless thinner.
Again, Ma walks into the kitchen and her step falters. She sees the crash site of my accident. Before she can leave, I say, “I fucked up.” That rounded ‘u’ sound is gone. I faaked up. Help. I cannot. I point to the cloth in her hand, to her. “I need —”
She is a sudden flurry of movement, flinging the cloth down and using it to sweep aside the mess of glass between us. Grabs my arm, guides me to hop one-footed away from the mess, to sit on the floor. The glass shards already lodged in my foot seem to burrow further, frightened by my movement. My breathing is fractured. Ma is unperturbed; she plucks the larger pieces out with her fingers, and squeezes the red meat until the smaller fragments sprout from the sole of my foot.
Later she will tease me for crying so much. I will not tell her that I am crying not from the pain, but in sheer, breathless relief of her cool touch on my swollen flesh. How her fingers are slick with my blood and when she runs them through her hair as she falls back, exhausted, she leaves dark streaks in her greying mane. Mother and daughter sitting on the cool kitchen tiles of an empty apartment, the butter soft light of the fading afternoon, gentle drifting motes of dust and ash, the sting of thinner and a sharp metallic tang in my nostrils, her kindness so serendipitous and aching — this. This is what is wrong with me.
Isabelle Teo is a queer, off-centre writer from Singapore. This is her first publication. More: Twitter @thosehorns