Sister Island

1.

My sister Lin has fallen in love. This is a recent development. Love leaks out of her like light under a doorway. I would like to say it becomes her, but very little does; the same way very little becomes me. I’m not trying to say we are hideous, just that beauty is not our strong suit. There are three years between us and two pairs of thick ankles, two pairs of floppy arms, two pairs of part-time spectacles, two pairs of unobtrusive breasts, two lightly made-up pale faces erased by floral towels every night. (The kind of cheap floral towels you get from the wet market: pink and thin and scratchy.) Lin has her hair in a bob, and I wear mine in a shoulder-length shrug of dead follicles. Our parents are gone. We live together alone.

Lin turned thirty-three three months ago. For her birthday we invited about 5 or 6 of her closest friends from church cell group over for dinner. I prepared sambal crab, fried rice, rendang and soggy kangkong. I am not a very good cook, and watched as everyone tolerated the food and even asked for second helpings. Their teeth shone in the temporarily impractical dim lighting of our living/dining room. We had a Black Forest cake afterwards.

The object of Lin’s affections is a bespectacled male called Peter. Fleeting impressions convey that he is tall and gangly – all sallowness and untoward limbs, a bean plant grown in a plastic cup. They met through Lin’s work (she is a physics tutor). Peter is a diary entry, scrawled in red ballpoint: Bukit Batok, East Ave 3, Wednesdays at 4:30pm. He is mediocre at physics. He is fifteen years old.

Almost sixteen, Lin opines. We are sitting at the dinner table, and I am being angry at her. I have rested my spoon on the surface of the table. A grain of rice sticks onto the formica.

I’m pretty sure it’s illegal, I say. It comes out as a harsh, whispered blurt.

Don’t say that, it’s not like that, Lin replies. She looks like she is about to cry.

Aside from some weight gain and a gradual leavening-out of features, my sister’s face has remained the same since childhood. There’s the same soft, gormless jaw, the kind, fuzzy eyebrows always furrowed over schoolwork. She too could look fifteen years old, if only you subtracted: an impatience of static afternoons, tepid commutes, result slips and certificates, family deaths, too much condensed milk, torrential rain-on-shins, oily suppers, the ineluctable indentation of time on skin.

 

2.

Three days ago I had come out from another gray day at work and was doing some evening shopping. I stopped off in the vast, monolithic Japanese department store with its affluent tourists and red marbled plinths. I emerged with flesh-colored stockings, two bottles of condiments, and a Swedish fruit slicer that would reduce even the most stubborn of pears into tidy discs. It was a balmy evening, the sky not quite dark. The crowds were thinning, and so I decided to meander toward the newly opened shopping centre.

It is billed as an Entertainment Lifestyle Complex, and resembles a neon aquarium; wide panes of glass and fluorescent lighting, bedecked with hideous technicolor banners depicting young people, ostensibly teenagers, EATING, DRINKING, SHOPPING and PLAYING. There is a multiplex cinema-cum-bowling alley occupying the top three levels of the shopping centre, and thus the entire Entertainment Complex has taken on a bizarre Hollywood theme.

Going up the escalator I drifted past several full-scale models of the Alien and Predator monsters, motion-sensor-grimacing at a trio of sullen schoolgirls. A hideous waxwork of Marilyn Monroe glowered from around the corner of a chain pasta restaurant. At thirty-six years old, even I have barely seen any Marilyn Monroe movies. The air in the building smelt artificial; a curious, heady melange of popcorn butter and polystyrene foam, starched uniforms and factory bleach. I caught a glimpse of my reflection and felt vague and discordant: a stray ghost lingering around the arcade machines. I turned to go back down the escalator, having seen quite enough. So this is where young people hang out, I heard a small voice, ant-sized, rattle off in my head. I wanted to smack it. Here I was mythologizing my teenhood, eulogising pimples and old compact discs, a fading frieze of lighter days and chronic indecision.

I came out of the building and cut through a path lined with big trees. My bus stop was just on the other side of the road. I was hungry and eager to get home and make dinner. On either side of the path were green metal railings. I strolled along for a few minutes and then veered to the right-hand side of the path. Just ahead of me were two people embracing against the opposite railing. They were fluid shadows, reaching and shifting; they looked like they might melt in the humidity. The boy was clad in the khaki-coloured uniform of a neighborhood boys’ school. He had sloped shoulders, a gawky, nothing face. The girl was wearing sand-coloured trousers, familiar-looking shoes. I looked up; there was Lin.

I will never know if Lin would ever have told me about him, or how long she might have waited. She says she would have told me eventually, but I don’t believe her. I have a sense that she would have kept their relationship a secret right until its inexorable conclusion, less out of discretion and more out of a not-knowing-what-to-do. Besides which, we never speak about such things.

What things? Peter is a clouded mass newly ornamenting my sister’s life. Aside from that stolen clinch, the actual weight and content of this mass is a mystery to me. In many ways I appreciate the ambiguousness; most people don’t like to hear the fine, sordid details of their relatives’ love lives. It is too cringeworthy, too proximate: in a strange way his age and inexperience soothe me. In more obvious ways those same things send me into a panic. Maybe their relationship is a soft, innocent thing and I am a bitch getting my pawprints all over it; drooling with speculation, misunderstanding. Maybe their relationship is a groping frenzy of hormones and I am an ostrich, burying my head in the ground so as not to imagine. Either way, I hate being that dog. I hate being that ostrich.

 

3.

After sitting in discomforting silence for some time, we clear the dinner table. Lin’s face is red and puffy as we wash and dry the dishes, pack the leftovers in the fridge. When it’s all done, we shuffle in front of the television, sit side by side as usual. I handle the remote, going through the different channels. We settle, or I settle, because Lin isn’t even really looking at the screen, on some Korean horror movie.

It’s already about twenty-five minutes in. Two sisters have moved into a grand old house, somewhere remote. They are sharing it with their austere, vaguely sinister stepmother, who looks no more than five years older than either of them. Shot from a distance, the house is a dark, elegant structure located in some parallel, gothic Korea; all still waters and muddy marshland, black furniture as if charred by smoke. The sisters are played by a pair of lissome young actresses with moonbeam complexions and identical haircuts; shiny smudges against a palette of gray and black. The younger one wears a bloodied pinafore. She lies in her bedroom and stares at the ceiling, then tries to go to sleep. The wardrobe creaks. With gruesome, graceful languor a figure with limp black hair rises up from the foot of her bed. The younger sister’s eyes dart open, wild and frenzied, an animal alert. A thin, clammy hand rises up and rests on the blanket by her feet; fidgets with deliberate slowness.

An advert comes on for washing detergent. Once again, a phantom hand appears. This hand is pink and healthy. It is spooning blue powder into a shiny machine. A soiled blouse reappears cartoon-bright, resurrected.

He’s a kid, I say.

Min, please don’t say that.

It’s true though. How long have you been involved with him?

Not long.

A couple of months?

Three months.

Were you ever going to tell me? This could get you in so much trouble.

I was going to tell you.

How did it happen?

It just did.

What if his mother finds out? What if his parents find out? You’re so stupid. You’re thirty-three. He’s fifteen. You will get put in jail. I won’t be able to help you. Mummy and Daddy aren’t around to help you. What would they think? Our relatives will not want anything to do with you. Especially Auntie Florence, her big mouth. Think about it.

It doesn’t have to be like that, pleads Lin. Her face crumples. I could twist the knife, or I could not. In my head my hand hovers over the handle. It’s not like that, really, please, says Lin.

You’re the one who goes to church every Sunday, I say. What would your cell group think.

My sister is shaking.

Have you done this before? Had other relationships with your students?

Lin’s face has discarded its sorry red flush, is now merely stricken. She doesn’t say anything.

The horror movie has come back on. One of the sisters is being chased through the house by the limp-haired specter. She runs into the stepmother, throat slit and dying on a chaise lounge. The girl gasps and makes sharp, clumsy turns. After a near-miss, she edges into a room draped with torn curtains and cowers under an antique desk. It is never a good idea to hide from these things, and she seems to know it; blind terror written all over her polished face. This is probably the point where the film morphs from cryptic into stupid. The score is blindingly cliched; all pockets of silence, interjected with screeching, ominous strings.

 

4.

When we were six and nine years old, our teenage cousin thought it would be a good idea to lock Lin and I in a broom cupboard. He bundled us in and slammed the door. Fourteen-year-old Teck Hee, old enough to know better, with eczema elbows and a sweat-beaded moustache blooming over his stupid mouth. The cramped cupboard in our uncle and aunt’s moulding cul-de-sac smelt of dusty red broom bristles, lizard urine and sponge crumbs.

Shut in elbow-to-jutting elbow with Lin, I discovered the full extent of my claustrophobia. Gasping and choking, I kept hitting the cupboard door with my fists. Lin whined and twisted my t-shirt with her clammy little hands. I batted her away. Gently, and then with as much force as I could muster. She fell against the wall and hit her head with a hollow thud. She started to cry. Sharp, noisy, child-sized gulps of pain. I couldn’t breathe. I worried that she would die in the darkness and this made me panic and cry as well. When our mother unlocked the door five minutes later we tumbled out a tangled mass of tears and limp hair. My hands turned cold seeing the trickle of blood down the side of Lin’s face. My mother hollered so loudly that I discounted all sound, the same way Teck Hee had been exonerated of blame; all I could do was cut out the audio and focus on the worried and disappointed faces of my parents. Lin could not speak for three days afterwards, and then she was perfectly fine – exactly the same, as if nothing had happened.

For years after the cupboard incident, I would have a lucid dream that Lin was just there, to the side and slightly below me in bed, even though she was in her own room next door. My eyes would half-open in the viscous darkness and I would feel those small hands twisting and clawing at my t-shirt. Pale little frightened hands; bearing me down, drawing me toward the foot of my bed. I would try to shake her off but I could never move. The hands never grew up, even as Lin turned twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-four, twenty-nine years old.

I am lying face down on a fraying pillow, a mosquito buzzing by my ear. My eyes ache to fall asleep. The portable fan is whirring softly. It is probably about three a.m. I’ve started having that dream again. Not just within the last few days, but over the last few weeks, intermittently. It starts with the gentlest of onslaughts, almost nostalgic; I feel consciousness lifting, kneading my streams of thought into nonsense-putty. And then the terrible sensation of those small hands tugging on my t-shirt, knotting up the blood in my veins. I feel the neurons in my brain clicking and whirring as my own hands turn cold and I struggle to breathe. If this nightmare has a color it is a sickly tone of blue; fine-tuned, clinical, dappled as a shadow. The episode probably lasts no more than a minute, or even twenty seconds; within which I fail to move.

Finally I sit up, petrified and exhausted. I wonder if my dream has been triggered by what we watched earlier in the evening. I remember the image of the young girls running around the burnt-out house of the peeling wallpaper and insistent ghost. Skinny little legs, and patent shoes screeching around the wooden floor. Delicate lace socks; Korean Victoriana. They would look so out of place in this cigarette-strewn, bucket-lined neighborhood. The idea of those pale girls loitering below this block of flats brings a sudden chill to the pit of my stomach.

I think about Peter. Peter Goh. He has an adult’s name, a real name; fully formed. Yet the owner of that title is a nascent blur by the sidewalk. I hardly know what he looks like. I can vaguely remember being fifteen; fifteen is a frog-egg, a tiny cipher, compared to being thirty. Thirty-three. (It makes me sick.) Peter could be any of those perspiring, harried teenagers swinging from the handles of a bus. (It makes me sick.) Three months is a long time to a teenager. (It makes me sick.) Fifteen: tuition schedules, pocket money, shirking off childhood. Childhood sticking to the shoulders, eventually fading like a bruise – but not yet.

For all I know he could be loitering around the car park right now, hands in bermuda shorts pockets – nervous, besotted. I check the time on my phone. 4:20 a.m. My throat feels dry, and I need to pee. It is Saturday morning, and later on I will go supermarketing. In the bathroom I flick on the light. Pee and flush. Feet on cold tiles, curling. I wash my hands and squint at my crumpled reflection. Through partly-opened eyes I look unhealthy and half-formed, my hair a limp mess. I look old and tired. I turn out the light.

In the corridor it is breezy and quiet. It sounds like sleep; the air deep and weighted. As if it’s a ritual, I stop outside Lin’s door. It isn’t shut. I push it open gently, allowing a mellow slice of light to enter the room. For a moment I expect to see an unmade bed, an uncharacteristically messy cupboard, an upset desk scattered with ballpoint pens. I imagine her soap-worn hands shoving clothing and possessions into a duffel bag, unlatching the lock of the front door with a delicate consideration. I picture the digital clock by the kitchen reading 2:00 a.m as she takes four flights down to the amber-lit car park, where the young boy will be waiting.

Instead the room is still and tidy. In the corner I make out the figure of my sister, asleep – a half-covered peninsula, rising and falling, facing the blank wall.

Sharlene Teo is a Singaporean writer and editor in between places and spaces. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, SOFTBLOW, Whole Beast Rag and the Ballard Street Poetry Journal, amongst others.

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6 Responses to Sister Island

  1. This is littered with beautiful lines.”If this nightmare has a color it is a sickly tone of blue; fine-tuned, clinical, dappled as a shadow” is stunning, and you just twist words around and form a perspective that is so unique, like in the line “The hands never grew up..”
    Very, very good. I’m enjoying every minute!

  2. Suzanne Ushie says:

    Breathtaking as always, Sharlene. Beautiful and lushly textured. I enjoyed every bit of it.

  3. germaine ong says:

    You are a wordsmith, as always…familiar places and people breathed lives into beings been crafted by you

  4. Pingback: Coast — Sharlene Teo

  5. i can see very quickly that you have a very vast vocabulary, but unlike rustle brand, you know how to use it. Certainly no fake ❤

  6. Pingback: Ponti: On Female Strengths and Burdensome Social Roles | Re:Views Magazine

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