I thought she would change, but my wife continued to ogle men on the street. Me, I don’t have that kind of confidence. Even if I’m expected to stare at women, in person or on a screen, that’s not the kind of marriage I want. My wife once said I was like a boy she used to know who refused to laugh when the teacher said penis. ‘Do you think that’s normal?’ she asked.
My wife almost always came home after I was asleep. She would take a shower and get into bed. Even on Saturdays she said she had to work. ‘Why are you wearing that?’ I shouted once. ‘It’s a red dress. Why wear that to the office?’
‘Don’t you think I look good?’ she replied. When I didn’t answer she said, ‘You don’t tell someone what to wear!’
I went and stood in front of the apartment door.
She put her hands behind her back and started hopping to prove her breasts wouldn’t fall out. ‘See?’
For days following that, I couldn’t concentrate at work. When the time came to head home, I was reluctant to leave.
I began exercising three times a week for two hours at a time. I thought if I didn’t have money then at least I could look strong. I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t in good shape either, and often when I pushed myself on the treadmill the sincerity of my efforts would move me to think that I deserved more respect from my wife.
Coming home, I would drape my sweaty shirt on the sofa so she would see my hard work. I would cook dinner despite my sore muscles, feeling ridiculous gripping the knife or the frying pan with both hands. I would work as fast as I could, afraid that she would suddenly come home and see me fumble.
All of this was exhausting, and each time I cooked I swore I wouldn’t do it again. But the following evening would find me standing in the kitchen, lifting the chopping board from the drying rack, and washing my hands.
One evening, as I stepped out of the shower, I was shocked when both ends of the towel effortlessly overlapped around my waist. I wiped the steam off the mirror and looked at myself. I looked amazing.
I called my wife. ‘Are you nearly home? It’s almost dinner time.’
‘Eating out tonight,’ she said.
‘Do you think it’s healthy? You being out late so often,’ I said, although I didn’t want to imply that I was accusing her of something.
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Why would I not be?’
Hearing this, I took deep breaths. I pictured myself doing the dishes later but didn’t have the guts to tell her I was unhappy. I started walking around the apartment shirtless. As I passed the window, I thought I was bringing joy to lonely housewives who might see me.
On the side of a double-decker bus I saw an ad for a fortune teller named Raymond. He had a really large nose. I called him from work – I wanted to know if things would improve.
‘Yup,’ was how he answered the phone. I’d phoned at a perfect time, he said, and chuckled to himself. He was just about to go to bed.
The fact that it was 9 a.m. and he said it so casually made me think he lived a better life than I could imagine.
‘Is something weighing on you?’ he asked.
Tears welled up. I couldn’t speak. Sounding impatient, he told me to come see him at a mall.
The mall was small with little foot traffic. It didn’t take long for me to spot him beside a cardboard booth next to the escalators. He was in a wheelchair, staring at a couple with a baby stroller arguing outside the toilet.
I suddenly regretted coming and tried to leave but he’d already noticed me.
‘You were staring,’ he said. I quickly apologized.
‘A wheelchair is a magnet,’ he said, smacking the wheels. ‘Attracts a lot of attention, which is a form of energy, which can be manipulated to serve you.’
He laughed. I didn’t know what to say.
All of a sudden he hopped up. I saw he was short and pudgy. ‘Are you offended?’
‘No. No.’ I was in shock.
‘Lesson one: anything can happen. So my question: how are you preparing?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I answered. I was smiling from nervousness. I thought he was crazy and I was stupid to come to see him.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Luck can make even the weakest man indestructible. If you’re lucky, someone can shoot you in the face, and you’d still live.’
I reached for my cheek.
‘I’m speaking metaphorically.’ I kept smiling.
‘When was the last time you felt lucky?’
I told him about finding a dollar coin on my jogging route and how after that I had looked for coins every time I went jogging. I tried to laugh because it sounded depressing.
He reached for my arm.
Squeezing it, he said, ‘Today you have gotten lucky.’
I went home that day with a plastic bag of feng shui items – urns, crystals, wind chimes, and a Laughing Buddha figurine. Raymond said the Buddha would bring joy and abundance to my life. To attain them I had to rub its pot belly before starting the day.
I did this the next morning, and then every morning after that. Then I would make breakfast, which tasted better because I was hopeful.
‘Would you like something to eat?’ I asked my wife one morning. ‘It depends,’ she replied, putting away her phone. ‘What are you making? I have a meeting later, I can’t be late for work.’ I brought her two slices of toast.
When she thanked me, smiling, it felt like the Buddha had done its work. I returned to the kitchen, which was pleasantly bright, and started wiping down the counter.
After a while, she came in. ‘Since when are you spiritual?’ She gestured to the Buddha. ‘I’d rather you not waste money on knick-knacks. You’re a grown man.’
I felt my stomach clench. I tried to think.
She came closer. ‘Can I take it to the office instead?’ she said, softly, resting her hand on my chest. ‘My boss is British. He loves this kind of oriental shit.’
‘Why do you always do this?’ I snapped, and she pulled away. I immediately grew nervous because I knew I had angered her. I looked past her into the living room: the toast was gone.
‘This man pays the salary that pays our bills. Don’t you think it’s wise to make him happy?’
‘Will you come home early then?’ I pointed to the television. ‘When was the last time we watched a movie?’
She shaped her fingers into a gun and mimed blowing her brains out.
‘This is such a small thing,’ she said. ‘Why do you have to make it difficult? Why must there be a reaction every fucking time?’ I didn’t respond. She waited. ‘I’m only asking you for some help.’
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Why are you apologizing? What for? Apologizing isn’t the same as agreeing to do better.’ I saw her glance at the clock on the wall, and then she kissed my cheek briefly.
I was glad when she left that morning.
That same day, I returned to the mall. Raymond was standing in front of the booth, hands on hips. He was heavily stubbled. When he saw me, he stuck out his thumb. ‘Perfect timing, again.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, and then nervously added, ‘can I buy another Buddha? Is that allowed?’ I felt my ears getting hot.
At first, he said nothing and stared at me like he was confused.
Then he tore the duct tape that held the booth together and began dismantling it.
‘This isn’t my real office. I’m only here to help out a friend.’
‘Your friend is very lucky,’ I said.
There was a long pause. Not knowing what else to say, I quickly bent over and stacked the cardboard into a pile. I could feel his eyes on me. When I finally looked up, he was nodding to himself.
‘The guy who owns this mall is my friend,’ he said and picked up the cardboard. ‘He’s a billionaire. I’m just a decorative piece. You get to use people like that when you’re that rich.’
It came as a surprise. The fact that he had made himself vulnerable, I suddenly felt I could tell him anything. I looked around. The mall was getting crowded. Lines were starting to form outside the cafés and restaurants. ‘I know what you mean,’ I said, placing a hand over my heart for emphasis.
He came closer and put his arm around me.
‘Affinity,’ he said. ‘We have that.’ He gave me a new Buddha, free of charge, and then invited me to come to his home the following Monday.
Monday, I arrived in a loose t-shirt and jeans, thinking I would spend hours kneeling in front of tall statues inside a dark apartment, choking on incense smoke, but it wasn’t like that at all.
His place was a three-story semi-detached. There was a tree on the roof. Entering the metallic gate, I could hear chatter from inside the house.
There were several people waiting by the front door. Raymond’s housekeeper welcomed us. We were shown how to deposit our shoes in the electronic locker. I was carrying a pineapple as a gift for good luck, but my heart fell when I saw others had thought to do the same.
Inside the main hall, the ceiling was high, the walls lined with mirrors. The floor was a cool beige marble. Guests mingled, talked, and sipped drinks. I thought Raymond must be very respected, the fact that so many people turned up for his party on a Monday night. It was like a wedding I had once attended where nearly a thousand guests had shown up; everyone was confident the marriage would be a happy one.
At the back of the room there was a projector screen; Raymond stood there, facing a small crowd. He was dressed in a very clean navy suit, a white scarf tied around his neck. When he spotted me, he raised his chin to say hey. This made people turn their heads at me.
Quickly, I said to the man beside me, ‘He mistook me for someone. It’s my first time here.’
The man glanced at my pineapple and gave a warm smile. ‘First, a speech. Then we get to eat.’
The lights dimmed, and Raymond whispered testing into the microphone. He began speaking of ‘fate as a current’ and the screen behind him flashed a picture of the sea. He then drew connections between the why and the how, and why we should not resist it. Every now and then, he looked down, as if he’d just shared something very intimate with us. ‘Do you know what happens when you drown?’ he said. ‘You sink and fish eat you.’ I found his voice alluring.
After his speech, Raymond came and relieved me of my pineapple, handing it to his housekeeper. He was buzzing. When he hugged me, sweat from his hair touched my cheek.
‘Did you bring it?’ he whispered.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Hold on.’
I surrendered my birth certificate, which he took with both hands and locked inside a safe deposit box. He was honest with me. He said this was about our birth timings: some numbers are good, others are bad. Putting them all in one place neutralizes the aura – like a blender – so that everyone here can be on equal footing.
‘It takes a while to intuit what you can and cannot control.’
At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was getting at. I was just happy to have someone to talk to inside a crowded room.
‘Look around, you are now part of a large family,’ he said, gesturing. He wanted me to circle the room, weave between his guests to get a feel for the crowd, the excitement. But I was to keep my hands in my pockets, my lips sealed. I was not to return anyone’s greeting and to watch what that felt like.
People continued to arrive. Eventually there must have been eighty or ninety people in the room. Voices were coming from all directions. I was greeted with smiles, nods, and after a while I began to relax. I checked the time; this time last night – I remembered very clearly – I had been snacking alone in front of the television, unhappy that my wife wasn’t home.
Who knew where she was right now?
The buffet line was ready. Five folding tables, lined up, with ornamental flowers and trays of food. Two stewards in white uniforms were handing out paper plates and plastic forks and spoons.
Someone said to me, ‘The chicken curry is the freshest.’ I smiled, as if I agreed, and joined the queue.
I sent my wife a text: On your way home?
As I was putting away my phone, I suddenly recognized someone: an Olympian. I was startled. I had once seen her swim on television. Now, she was wearing a tight dress and talking with guests. The fact that she looked twice as good with dry hair surprised me. When she laughed, I could see her teeth were very healthy. Our eyes met and we both smiled; it felt like I’d won something. My heart was racing. I started scanning the room for more famous faces.
When the party was over, and taxis were pulling into the driveway, I was surprised to see many people still holding onto their pineapples. Most of them hovered by the hallway, and a few looked over at me as if I should tell them what to do. I approached one of them, a woman with dark circles under her eyes. The sense of serendipity had made me bold. I wanted to say something kind, but I became embarrassed at the last moment and said, ‘Waiting for a taxi?’
She shrugged and then left the house.
As I had hoped, Raymond came to me as I was putting on my shoes. ‘Fantastic work,’ he said. ‘I want you back next week.’
‘Oh, next week?’
‘I thought you’d be happier,’ he said.
‘One week is a long time to wait,’ I said.
That made him laugh. ‘You’re a really nice guy. You deserve good things.’ Then he extended his hand to haul me onto my feet.
From his eyes, I could tell he wasn’t joking at all.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself arriving early to have drinks with Raymond so he could introduce me to his celebrity guests before the party started. All was well. The famous, I realized, excelled at small talk and often they spoke with an energetic friendliness that was unique to high achievers. Being close to them, I felt as though I was back in school and these classmates had no qualms about teaching me a thing or two because they did not view me as competition. Eventually I got to be on first name basis with some of them. This was different. My younger self would have been proud.
The parties always had a good mix of men and women, although more often than not there were more good-looking women than men. Some of these men wore ladies’ suit pants that sat high up their waists, and would go about the room and strike up conversations with random women. These men appeared at ease and said things that made the women laugh. Watching them, I felt jealous.
One night, a man from this group came up to me and offered me a drink. He was a smallish guy with a friendly smile.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘Raymond said you might have a question for me.’ I was taken aback.
‘What do you want to know?’ I looked at his pants. ‘Oh, it doesn’t look great,’ he admitted, ‘but it’s not awful either. You do get stares once in a while, and it can be very exciting. It empowers me.’
I thought about this for a while, finishing my drink.
That night, I took a taxi home. I found my wife already in bed, hiding under the duvet. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t you have meetings and whatnot?’
‘Are there clinics in the neighborhood still open?’
‘I’ll check,’ I said and backed out of the room. I turned on the lights in the living room but after a while turned them off and walked up to the laundry basket in the kitchen. The apartment was very warm. I felt dazed, and a part of me was hoping my wife would suddenly emerge from the bedroom. When she did not, I lifted her pajama pants and began stretching the waistband. I thought I had gone mad. I put on the pants. The fabric was so soft. Once it brushed against my thighs I realized my hips were easing, my shoulders loosened. I tried walking and started laughing. I found myself opening the front door.
I ended up at the park. Breathing in the fresh air, I felt unusually light-hearted. I looked at my surroundings, the park bench, the street lamps, the stray cat, and the soft moon hanging in the sky.
I entered a 7-Eleven and bought a beer.
I said to the cashier, ‘How are you tonight? Everything going well?’ And she smiled back. ‘A little tired but thank you for asking.’
On my way home, I took deep gulps of the beer. I couldn’t stop thinking about that smile.
When I asked Raymond why he organized these parties, he joked that he was an attention-seeker. But then he turned serious and said, ‘If you spot a problem, you must let me know. I’ve been doing this for so long I can’t tell what’s lacking anymore.’ One night, he told me that he suspects his caterer had been overcharging him. We were in the hall, looking through the window, waiting for the first guests to arrive. ‘I’ll find you a better one,’ I offered, wanting to please.
The following week, I started a book to record how much each guest ate and drank, and I alerted him to a television host who always came for a quick drink and then left.
‘Should we do something?’ I asked.
‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,’ he answered almost immediately. When I didn’t say anything, he pointed to an actor walking around with ankle-wrist weights. ‘That was my idea – keep fit while socializing. This guy used to talk shit about me. But then my billionaire friend cast him in a film, and now he sticks to me like a fly. It’s a mistake to force people to like you.’
My face was stiff. ‘Does that mean I have no control?’
‘No, not always,’ he said, smiling. ‘You can try mimicking people. Most people find it hard to say no to themselves.’
So I began picking up the mannerisms of people at the parties after that. I approached the rich and famous in the room and offered them drinks. I asked about their day, whether the food was to their liking, acting as if I were their host. Then I observed how they responded and took mental notes.
Now I saw the crowded room as brimming with opportunities.
To appear confident in conversation, I learned to pinch my thumb and forefinger and move them like a woodpecker. A simple phrase, ‘I mean it,’ was suddenly charged with profundity.
And with time, I also grew less hesitant to speak my mind. I came clean the minute I got confused. I said, ‘Excuse me, but could you elaborate?’ When someone did well, I said, ‘That’s incredible,’ or ‘I’m happy for you.’ I said these things with verve. Another thing I learned was saying no. Now, whenever I looked into people’s eyes, I found myself saying, ‘I have explained myself and feel no need to do so any further,’ or ‘Let us just agree to disagree.’ Hearing these words, I would become deeply moved by myself.
The first time I uttered, ‘Let’s agree to disagree’ in an argument with my wife, she was shocked and became quiet.
She thought for a bit, and then lifted my hand. ‘Have you noticed? Your hands are smaller than most men’s.’
‘Sure.’ I felt nothing like my old self.
Then she pressed my hand against her breast. ‘See what I mean?’
I was silent. I felt calm and a bit absent. I shrugged. ‘I’m taking a shower,’ I told her and walked away. To my surprise, she followed me into the bathroom and started peeling off her clothes.
After that day, she began to initiate sex frequently, three to four times a week. And for a while, I felt pretty good about myself. When we kissed, she would leave hickies on my neck and laugh when she turned my head side to side to study them. Sometimes she would ask what I wanted and performed those things for me, and I would ask her the same, but she would shake her head and say, ‘No. No need,’ her voice coming from a faraway place. The hardest part was pretending that I didn’t mind and going to bed afterwards, even though I was irritated. Because the marriage continued to lack tenderness, I realized I couldn’t enjoy the additional sex my wife was giving. I found myself drinking more and more heavily at Raymond’s parties and, once home, using my drunkenness to avoid any sort of intimacy.
The night I met the billionaire, I wasn’t supposed to know he was dropping by, but Raymond had hired a team to trim the hedges in the front yard and even had the caterer replace a steward who had pimples on his face, so I knew pretty much instantly.
Raymond’s housekeeper and I were looking for stains on the living room carpet. Raymond inspected the food trays, his face pinkish with make-up.
‘Come and taste this,’ he called to me.
I hurried over. He smelled of cologne. ‘You look good,’ I said. Silver glitter flickered in his gelled hair. I thought how nice it must feel to know that someone was going out of their way to impress you.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Is the curry spicy enough?’
‘Good. He likes spicy. How are things with your wife?’
I looked at him. ‘Not great,’ I said, ‘I’m nervous all the time.’
‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. If things change, then it’s meant to be.’
‘I try to be nice but always I end up getting hurt.’
He turned to look at the driveway. Seeing it was empty, he said, ‘The issue is not your approach. Rather, some people simply do not find value in what we are offering them. It doesn’t always mean they’re happier, and so we must sympathize.’
I thought about this. ‘The thing is,’ I said, angrily, ‘I’m not asking for heaven and earth. What I’m just asking for is perfectly reasonable. Prioritize me over late-night meetings every now and then. Say, “Thank you for making breakfast.” Don’t say things like, “You’re the sort of guy who tries to dip a tea bag in a mug and misses completely.” Are these things too much to ask for?’
‘Calm down,’ he said, leaning forward. ‘I know what it is you want to hear. You want me to tell you that you’re right. But I can’t say that. What I can say is that you’re not wrong. For everything that happens, there are at least a dozen ways to understand it. Perhaps what you need is to step out of yourself. It takes time, but you will get there. I promise, all right? Now help me move the sunflowers to the center of the table. They look better there.’
The billionaire arrived with his wife and two bodyguards. He was tall, middle-aged, and wore brown shorts and a white t-shirt. His wife wasn’t as young and attractive as I thought she would be. She had a bouquet of lilies under her arm, and the crumpled flowers made her look strangely weary.
When Raymond saw them, he shouted, ‘My friend!’ and then hurried over to embrace the billionaire. It was around seven in the evening; the sun had just set.
Everyone turned to look at them.
Then the two disengaged and stepped back from each other. The billionaire patted Raymond on the cheek. ‘Say something interesting!’
It silenced the room.
I looked to the housekeeper from across the room. When she caught my eye, she turned and disappeared into the kitchen. Raymond was frozen but smiling.
The billionaire repeated himself.
Watching this, I felt sorry for Raymond and suddenly protective of him. I could release the drink in my hand – the crash, the liquid splattering on the floor would draw away everyone’s attention. All I had to do was uncurl my fingers, but somehow I couldn’t do it.
Then I saw Raymond turn to face the room and spread out his arms. ‘How do you control fate?’ he began, raising his voice. ‘I say go for a run before getting a haircut. If your hairdresser can’t stand the sweat and smell, she’ll give you a free wash.’ As he spoke, I became more and more upset with myself.
The billionaire was scanning the room. Nobody uttered another word until he burst out laughing.
Both men were soon surrounded by guests who went up to introduce themselves. I volunteered to take photos. I tried to be useful. Then Raymond pulled me aside and said he would be in his study and asked me to welcome the newcomers. ‘See that everyone has the food and drinks they need.’ I gave a thumbs up, and then he and the billionaire went upstairs.
I shook hands with people and took their pineapples. A few had brought pomelos and argued that pomelos were auspicious too. ‘Sure,’ I said, and turned them toward the door. The room was extremely noisy now and, from time to time, I thought about my wife. I wondered where she was, what she was doing and how she was feeling.
I spotted the billionaire’s wife alone by the buffet table. I approached her, obliquely, so as not to startle her. But before I could say anything, she snatched a handful of grapes and began mashing them into her face. She started crying.
‘Hey,’ I said.
She turned to me. ‘Oh shit, sorry.’
I quickly reached out with napkins. Because I knew my flowers, I said, ‘Lilies. Someone apologized to you?’
She looked down at the flowers. She tried to say something but found her throat blocked.
‘Breathe,’ I said.
‘Is sex so important to men?’ she asked me. ‘What about love? What about love?’ She was sniffling.
I showed her my wedding ring. I said, ‘Of course, love is important.’
She smiled and nodded, and I felt grateful for some reason. ‘Why else would two people be together?’
I wanted to talk about my wife and my feelings toward her then, but I had learnt that you should never talk about yourself when someone confides in you. So I ushered her to the sofa and sat her down beside me. ‘What’s causing your unhappiness?’ I asked.
She wavered for a long time before pulling out her phone. ‘Look at this,’ she said and played this grainy clip of a woman sucking off a man inside a hotel room. ‘This is the man I married.’
‘Ah.’ I thought for a second. ‘Have you spoken to him?’
She nodded. ‘It was ugly,’ she said. ‘He smashed wine bottles against the wall. And then threatened to cut his wrists.’ She paused and hid her face.
‘You must be heartbroken.’
I gestured for Raymond’s housekeeper to bring us drinks. While we waited, I wondered what Raymond would say at a time like this. When the drinks came, I took a gulp and tipped my glass at her, feeling the early stages of drunkenness.
‘What if you had to choose between two pairs of pants?’ I asked. ‘The first has been soaked in wet dog shit, and the other once belonged to a murderer who tortured children – which pair would you pick?’
She looked at me.
‘Both are the same size, color, and cutting,’ I added. ‘But one has been soaked in shit.’ She laughed nervously.
‘Let me remind you. Both have been washed. One is just as clean as the other.’ Then I reached for her hands. ‘Do you see? Your choice is based on an aura – this feeling that something is dirtier than the other. Do you see what I mean? To forgive your husband, think of him like a laundered pair of pants.’
I took a deep breath and looked around the room and it was suddenly obvious how loud I had been. I felt lightheaded.
‘You love him, am I right?’ I asked. ‘You want to forgive him?’ She couldn’t tell exactly.
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘It’s not like one day I love him and the next I don’t – I can tell myself that.’
She stared at my face for a moment, narrowing her eyes, and then snorted. ‘How much do you think murderers’ pants cost?’
‘I’m sure you can afford it.’
When she laughed, I felt triumphant. I said to her, ‘Thank you for sharing.’
And then I heard clapping behind me.
It was Raymond. He looked very pleased. ‘You have potential,’ he said. ‘You have wisdom to share.’ I told him I was just trying to help and he thanked me. I looked around the room. The billionaire was eating by one of the cocktail tables and talking with two beautiful women. He had a napkin tucked in his collar and held a fork in his hand.
Later, when we were alone, Raymond whispered in my ear, ‘Go upstairs. Go into my study. Someone will greet you there.’ I had never seen the inside of his study.
I went up and opened the door. There was a strong smell of cigar smoke and perfume. A woman in a tube dress was stubbing out a cigarette on an ashtray. ‘Another one?’ She glanced over at me, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
I took a deep breath. ‘Yes.’
That night, I left the house without shame or guilt. I kept thinking of the things my wife did that irritated me. Cheating on her was to avoid getting hurt. I felt optimistic, stronger. Walking toward the bus stop, I wished I could walk forever. Then I hopped onto a bench and started playing the air guitar. I imagined undergarments, roses, and love letters hurled at me. I imagined carrying these items home in large plastic bags and showing them to my wife; she becomes jealous, then afraid. All was not lost. I felt certain I could be kind to her now. I looked up at the sky. It was black and starry.
Little by little, everything was arranged. Raymond converted one of his studies into an office where I could offer consultations to his guests. He bought me suits and shoes, and even paid for a dentist to whiten my teeth.
I asked him, ‘Why would people want to hear what I have to say?’
‘You don’t make them,’ he answered. ‘You speak, and if they like what they hear, they’ll stay around. If they don’t, they don’t. That has always been the job.’
My official title wasn’t fortune teller but Life Coach. I took my station five nights a week and shook hands with people who came in, asking them, ‘Do you want to feel like everything is within your reach?’
Usually, they stayed silent and waited for me to go on. Once alcohol was served, I had them sit down. I would then ask various questions and nod solemnly at their stories. The shy ones tended to look at their hands or the ceiling while they spoke, but everyone wanted a listening ear and someone to say aloud what they already knew in their hearts. Deep down, we all recognize that things will never change, and we are more or less ready to accept it.
As Life Coach, what I offered was encouragement.
I posed questions like, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ And if they answered, I said, ‘That’s unlikely. You know that.’
Most of these sessions lasted between five to ten minutes, though they got longer as I gained more confidence. Once the time was up, I would fish out a crystal bracelet from the desk drawer and say, ‘This will protect you from harm. Wear it, even in the shower, and you’ll notice good things coming your way.’ These bracelets weren’t free, of course. They cost as much as a Rolex watch. Raymond’s housekeeper would collect the money at the door.
I really enjoyed what I did. Whenever I arrived at the house and saw the party, people turning their heads, I imagined half of them had come specifically to see me. Nearly always I would find gifts on my desk: tickets to sold-out concerts, vouchers for skin-care products endorsed by my actor friends, and sometimes, Mao Shan Wang durians from a humble fruit-seller buddy. Moments like these, I felt loved.
I was enjoying myself so much that I could ignore, to some extent, the tension I felt at home. I began making up stories about where I had been but at the same time I felt indignant that I had to lie. I thought if I had a good time at a party or helped someone, I should be able to come home smiling and tell someone. Often I would return very late, two or three in the morning. I would be hot and tipsy and would walk unsteadily. I would wash my face with cold water to sober up. Once, my wife got mad because I’d woken her up. ‘Are you an elephant?’ she shouted and threw a pillow at me. ‘Why do you have to walk so loud?’ She was having a lovely dream and now it was gone. I was staring at my spot on the bed, paralyzed.
I left the room and slept on the sofa.
I couldn’t find my Laughing Buddha the following day. I called my wife, and she came out of the room and shoved a five-dollar in my hand. She had just showered and was all dressed up, but her hair was wet. She said the Buddha cluttered the flat and so she sold it at Cash Converters.
I demanded an apology.
‘Go pray for one,’ she said, and then left the apartment.
From then on, it became a competition of who would come home later than the other. My wife would slam the door or the toilet seat, jolting me awake, whereas I would max out the volume on the television or gargle Listerine. Some nights, though, she would open the door and just stand there, watching me. And I would see her lips move but not hear anything.
Weeks went by. There was so much anger inside me I felt tired all the time. Unable to rid this feeling, I was left confused. I didn’t understand why I was still miserable despite having transformed myself. And I became so frustrated that I thought I was going to cry. Not knowing what else to do, I bought flowers and wrote apology cards, but I was aware that I was doing these things to stop the fighting and it was out of self-preservation.
One night, I got very drunk. When I came home, I heard muffled voices from behind the bedroom door. At first I thought it was my imagination. So I lowered myself onto the sofa and tried to focus, and I began to feel sick in the heart. My head started to spin. I vomited. And when I took a breath, I couldn’t fill my chest with enough air. Exhausted, I blacked out.
When I woke up the next day, the bedroom door was closed. I thought I was still dreaming. Then, realizing that whoever was with my wife last night must have snuck out and seen me fast asleep, I became wide awake. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about how my wife and I used to go window-shopping before we got married. One time we saw a man leaving the casino, grinning, and my wife, on a whim, suggested we follow him around the mall. We were embarrassed for him when he stood in line for boba tea. My wife called him a loser and we laughed, then returned to the casino and tailed one guy after another until someone bought a Louis Vuitton bag. Lying there, I felt so empty and in such a desperate need of comfort that I nearly got up to check inside the bedroom. But I was afraid of another fight. I wondered if this was any way for a person to live.
It took effort, but I eventually sat up and wiped the tears from my face. I took out my phone and opened YouTube. I watched award speeches and started smiling when actors included anecdotes of trials and tribulations. Every now and then the camera panned over to an actor’s spouse, and I would spot their happy tears. It was the most beautiful thing. I felt happy for them. I don’t know how long I stayed there before my wife came out of the bedroom.
She told me it wasn’t working. Her voice was soft but firm. She patted the sofa cushion, indicating she wanted me to come closer. She waited for me move, but when I did not she said, ‘Why are you like this?’ I felt a lot of guilt, yet also anger – she had chosen not to bear any responsibility for what had become of us.
It was almost noon, and sunlight poured in through the window.
The room didn’t look real. ‘Did you sleep with another man?’ I asked.
When she couldn’t give an answer, I found myself yelling at her. I called her a bully, a tyrant, but none of this seemed to unnerve her or move her to say something nice to me.
‘Do you think you’ll change?’ I finally asked.
‘Look, this marriage is over,’ she said. ‘I love you, but it’s over.’
She had on a full face of makeup and was wearing that low-cut dress I hated. ‘Why are you wearing that again?’ I asked.
‘You know what? I’ll give you a few days to process this.’ Then she packed some clothes into a suitcase. At the door, she said, ‘Text me.’
I nodded slowly.
My shame was now so great that I felt like hurting myself. I got up and guzzled water from the kitchen tap. My mouth was all twisted. As I drank, I regretted everything mean I could have said to her but did not.
Later that day, I removed our mattress from our bedroom because it felt dirty. I slid a blanket underneath the mattress and began to yank the fabric until my body was cold. At the front door, I put on my slippers. I took the stairs.
I began dragging the mattress across the street.
It took almost an hour. Several times I had to squat down to catch my breath. All around me was quiet except for crows cawing in the trees, and I propped the bed against the side of the dumpster so it wouldn’t obstruct foot traffic. Looking at the mattress, I considered how tainted it was. I wiped away my sweat, and the reality of having been abandoned suddenly became real. I’ve done nothing wrong, I said to myself and began to heave. After that, I came home, took a shower, and ate something.
For a week or so, at 7.30 p.m. every evening, I called Raymond on the phone. This helped me pass the time. I would stand by the window and listen to him talk about the parties. He said there were people asking for me. I assured him I would be back because I felt the need to be polite.
He mentioned a gift from the billionaire: a silver Bentley. It was sitting in the driveway. He had been having his meals by the window so that he could look at the car.
‘I can’t drive,’ he said and laughed.
I told him I was looking out the window too. That some idiot had left a mattress by the dumpster. The garbage truck hadn’t arrived, and it had been almost a week. Rain or shine, the bed sat there, slumped, for all the neighbors to see. Several cars drove by. Schoolchildren in blue uniforms were hurrying back from school. I was wearing shorts and a gray singlet.
‘It’s an eyesore,’ I said.
He was supposed to speak but did not.
Photograph © Chris Hsia
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