Featured Story: The Other Woman by O Thiam Chin

28 July 2010
Featured Story: The Other Woman by O Thiam Chin
Chee Ming parked the car by the side of the road curb and got out, while Ai Ling stayed inside. A heated rush of steamy air and traffic noises streamed into the car for a moment before he closed the door, and the numbing quietness returned. Ai Ling looked around, but couldn’t tell where they were, with the ubiquitous surroundings of tall housing blocks and uniform shrubbery. Alone in the car, she watched Chee Ming move with purposeful intent, first checking the wheels and then lifting the car hood. She didn’t step out to help him, but waited in the cool confines of the car, waiting for him to set things right.

A Honda Civic drove past the car and stopped just a few metres in front of them. The driver, a young man with a lean, wiry physique, got out and approached Chee Ming. Ai Ling caught a good look at him – tanned smooth face, slant eyes and a strong jawline – before he disappeared behind the lifted hood, examining the car engine. After some time had passed, Chee Ming brought the hood down with a slam and she could see that both their hands were stained with dark grease marks. The young man brought out a packet of tissues from his back pocket and offered one to Chee Ming. Then as if they were reacquainted long-lost friends, they stood and chatted, unbothered by the scorching afternoon sun. Ai Ling checked her watch and returned her gaze to the young man.

Ai Ling didn’t know how long she stared at him; her mind slipped away imperceptibly into daydreaming. Realising this, she snapped out of it – a veil lifted – and her thoughts came alive like hungry wolves.

This is my life, every second ticking away, stuck, vacillating in indecision. Nothing seems to make sense anymore.

It was getting harder to control her thoughts lately: how they often slipped into these anguished moments of disquiet and fear. She felt unsettled, aggrieved, by the flow of her thoughts that pierced the skin of her mind, a whip of thorns. It was impossible to tell Chee Ming these things; it wouldn’t make sense to him; he would only return a blank look, thinking that she needed to be reassured, that she was in one of her strange moods again.

The silence and the cold air in the car constricted Ai Ling, but she didn’t lower the side window. She studied the young man, and wondered about his life, picturing what his life was before he came to this present moment, standing outside the car, helping them out. She suddenly felt an irrational impulse to confess everything to him, every single part of her life, to empty herself inside out. What would he say or do then? She wondered whether what she saw as a pathetic life – in her late-thirties, holding down a mundane job, stuck in an aimless affair with a fifty-two year old man – he could see it as a matter of fact, something that any fool could see.

Ai Ling felt an irresistible urge to kiss the young man. She knew it would be easy to kiss him, even in front of Chee Ming. She could already feel her lips parting slightly in this imaginary kiss, her heart fluttering with desire. Yet another part of her wanted Chee Ming to do something, to act, to retaliate. If she knew him well enough – was it possible to lay such a claim on a married lover? – over the past three years, she knew he would react strongly – violently, she hoped – pulling her away or punching the young man’s face; a punch seemed not unreasonable, possible, even expected. Anything, except passivity or indifference, was preferable.

Ai Ling knew she could easily fall for this young man if only he would notice her now. She stared at him through the windscreen and he was still talking to Chee Ming, raising his arms with animation, and then broke away to head back to his car, returning a few seconds later, holding a card in his hand. He smiled, looking confident, self-assured. He passed the card to Chee Ming who nodded at him. Then the young man turned, peering into the car, his hands just above his eyes, shielding the glare of the sunlight. Ai Ling shifted in her seat and took off her sunglasses. She wanted him to look into her eyes and know the very goodness that lies in her heart.

Will this be the entire truth? Can a truth be captured in a moment – this exact moment – between breaths of thoughts? What do you frankly know about your own goodness, your divided heart?

Ai Ling paused, trapped in her own mind: No, this would be a lie, a deception, her old way rearing its ugly head; the real hard truth – it pained her to acknowledge – was that she has always been indecisive, lacking a certain character, of gumption, of courage, that would allow her to make up her mind: to go, to stay, or to act; and so at the very heart of the matter: inertia. But no, she’s a different kind of woman all together, one that held unrelentingly, tenaciously, to all her choices, and the consequences that came with them.

There was no need to let this stranger know all these, just yet. It was too early, too much, too soon. There were so many possibilities, if only she could leave out her doubts right from the start. But would he have a girlfriend, Ai Ling wondered? And if he had, would he have her still – the other woman? Would he choose her when there comes a time to do so? Ai Ling knew what Chee Ming would choose and it saddened her to know that nothing she had done or could do will alter his decision any other way.

And this was how she pictured herself: a sad, needy, thirty-eight-year old woman, unmoored, drifting. An unpleasant, ugly picture that stung her, only because it was true, or had become true over the years. Life simply wore her out.

It was still early: she could still leave; the pain would linger for a while, but she would emerge whole at the end, burnt but chastised. She would love the young man, she could try; and because by then, she would be aware of what it took to be in love, she would hold back some and let nothing get out of control, out of her hands. It would be for his sake, she would remind herself, what he didn’t know would never kill him, and what he did know would be all that they needed.

Chee Ming was a one-woman man, though he would deny this vehemently if anyone asked him; his life had always flowed in the direction of his wife. Ai Ling knew what she had from him was what was left of him, after his wife took the best, and if it were not for his lust, and her being at the right place at the right time, as his personal assistant – Chee Ming owned an air-conditioning servicing company – they wouldn’t have been together. Chee Ming wasn’t Ai Ling’s first married man, and she wasn’t his first affair. He had wooed Ai Ling with a pure determination, like a man pursuing a goal, a coveted prize, and she was easily won over, a woman hungry for attention.

During the first year of their affair, she had gone over to his place, a bungalow along Upper Thomson Road, without his knowledge. She stood outside the house, in the dark, and he was at home with his wife. From the slats between the gilded front gates, she watched them in the living room, sitting before the TV set, with glasses of red wine and a plate of green grapes on the table before them. Chee Ming had his arm over his wife’s shoulder, curling and uncurling the ends of her shoulder-length hair. To Ai Ling, it was the most natural gesture in the world, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.

Chee Ming and the young man talked for such a long time outside the car, Ai Ling contemplated whether she should interrupt them and break up their conversation. She would frown and show the disapproval on her face. Maybe the young man would smile and apologise and say something self-deprecating to lighten the mood, to dismiss himself. He would reveal this sweet, decent side of him, and Ai Ling would love him more for it, though of course, he would never know anything about it. He would get into his car, and drive away, and leave her and Chee Ming behind, standing beside the curb, looking at him, moving away from them. She would look at Chee Ming and he would shrug his shoulders, brushing away this episode as if it were nothing. They would get into the car and drive to wherever they were going in the first place. Ai Ling would put on her sunglasses so Chee Ming would not be able to see what her eyes were revealing, her act of betrayal.

Instead Ai Ling sat in the car and did nothing. She adjusted the vents of the air-con, and waited. She imagined the words of their conversation, and even uttered a few words to see whether they fit the shapes of their moving mouths. Finally they shook hands and the young man raised his hand and waved in her direction. His lips pulled up into a smile, and Ai Ling waved back, unsure whether he could see her and her little gesture. He opened his mouth to say something, and she smiled in mute acknowledgement. Chee Ming came back into the car, drenched in sweat, huffing, but in a good mood. He turned the key in the ignition, and the car came back to life. As he drove past the young man’s car, he gave a nod, and said: “You should have come out just now and talk to him. He’s such a friendly guy, I’m sure you would have liked him.”

That night, standing outside Chee Ming’s house, Ai Ling lost track of the long hours, and the countless thoughts going through her mind. She couldn’t distinguish how she felt from what she thought, and everything seemed to be beyond her comprehension, unanchored, out of place. She watched Chee Ming, and especially his wife, as if she were watching an unreal, parallel version of her own life, set in a different world where she was not her old, sad self, but a truer, happier and livelier version of herself, a woman wanted. She didn’t realised how much she wanted all these to be true until that moment, and even then, she knew her life would never turn out how she had imagined it to be.

O Thiam Chin’s short stories have appeared in Asia Literary Review, QLRS, Asia Writes, Kyoto Journal, The Jakarta Post, Cha, Karavan, and in several anthologies. He is the author of two story collections, ‘Free-Falling Man’ and ‘Never Been Better’ (longlisted for the Frank O' Connor Short Story Award 2010), and his new collection ‘Under the Sun’ will be published in 2010.
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