A text by the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Sharlene Teo
One evening, two weeks before loan sharks would chase him away into the unknowable depths of Indonesia, Frankie's father sat and sighed at the dinner table. It was the round marble table with a Lazy Susan, stained with sesame and chili oil-spills.
"What's wrong?" Frankie asked, doubled over, hands above his knees. He was breathless and sweaty from running up and down the alleyway, chasing the fat brown dog with the lolling tongue.
Frankie's father sat frowning at his left palm.
"Come here," he said, and beckoned. The father held up his gruff man-sized hand that was almost the same size as Frankie's head. Out of the corner of his palm, merged with a lifeline, were two or three strands of black, curly hair.
Coarse and straggly, commanding their way up toward the father's thumb.
"Look," chuckled the father. "I have hair in my palm." He turned toward Frankie and, with a sudden movement, gripped his son's face with one hand and wiped his giant palm around it. First on the left cheek, and then slowly and thoroughly across Frankie's smooth little jaw.
Frankie shrieked and batted him away. The unnatural hairs that had touched his face were terrible dead cell tentacles. Follicles of doom. He felt infected. Frankie ran to the back of the house, where his small, soft mother sat flipping between the nine o'clock drama serial and some Lithuanian gymnasts on television. The gymnasts wore blue and purple patterned spandex – bending and flowing toward each other, all immaculate chignons and glacial gazes. Frankie sat beside his mother, panting and almost crying. She glanced at him and held out her arm.
In the first place, Frankie and Lottie had chosen the wrong neighbourhood. It was an inhospitable area to live in – quiet and staid. The neighbourhood was a dog ageing at seven fold acceleration – listless, drowsy, and developmentally doomed. Orange cranes were replacing the landscape with block after block of shiny, air-conditioned developments. Frankie and Lottie were apathetic toward urban renewal and gentrification, unless it affected their rent in the short term. The scorching grey streets and narrow walkways formed a neutral landscape that neither of them formed any particular attachment to.
The old people who lived in the tattered flats and cul-de-sacs regarded the young couple with unmistakeable disdain. Foreigners, both of them; fresh and blithe and part of this incursion – Frankie with his limp hair and tatty Bermuda shorts, Lottie with her moonbeam skin and orange Crocs.
The haircut would cost fifty-five dollars. Frankie and Lottie had discussed it for a few weeks. It was something of a big deal, as Frankie hadn't had his hair trimmed in months and it would be his first haircut in this newish, toothy city, and it was something someone did when they were accustomed to a place, something casual and cheerful. They had researched on the Internet for the best salons within their price range. There were so many more salons to choose from than in their dinky hometown.
Frankie took the address down on his phone, and showed up with the exact fee. A skinny girl with pencil-drawn eyebrows made him hide his normal clothing under a paper gown. She sat him in a black leather-look chair and the back of his thighs stuck to the plastic as she flitted around him with a glinting scissors, combing and subtracting.
Frankie returned from his haircut a different person. His ears bloomed along the side of his face – bashful, nude, ever peeking. The back of his neck was sunburnt. He had five new mosquito bites spread across his right arm and right leg. The bites didn't itch so much as feel like five little people insistently tapping and poking through his skin.
"I'm leaving you," he said to Lottie, just as he came in. "Because you are insincere."
"How can you say that," Lottie cried. "And what does that even mean?"
"Insincere means you're not sincere," Frankie said. He had never been good at articulating himself. His exposed face was serious and sallow, with eyes like a neglected beagle.
The thing was, in the wake of his new haircut, where previously Frankie had simply existed with a casual acknowledgment of his reflection, he now felt acutely aware of his looks and suffused less with vanity than horror – that all the time, even when he wasn't trying or even thinking about it, he continued existing as an ugly, visible solid: three-dimensional, awkward, simian.
Back in the salon and completely unable to move his head, Frankie subjected his face to a hitherto unprecedented level of scrutiny and realised within two seconds something that he had never noticed before; he was offensively asymmetrical. This sense of visual discord only increased the more intently he stared at himself. The more he looked, the more ridiculous his features grew. He was minced pork meat, he was small potato. His left eye was lower than his right eye, and noticeably smaller. He was twenty-two but could have passed for a well-slept thirty-five. He had an oily nose and a pallid, merman's complexion. It even surprised him that he didn't have webbed toes. The hair was being shorn off him and soon the sides of his face and jaw would be exposed. Frankie felt intractably clammy and gross, and genuinely baffled that anyone could love him, least of all Lottie with her lighthouse eyes and gymnast's figure.
It was stupid reasoning and he couldn't pretend otherwise, but he could keep it to himself. So it would be this moment – with the portable fan humming and mosquitoes laying eggs in the corner, which ended their brief halcyon days when they conferred over everything. Frankie and Lottie, everything together, everything in tandem, cultivating an amiable Siamese twin existence in that tiny flat above a provision store whose inventory included grimy newspapers plastered with slimming adverts, and dusty jars of cookies that had long lost their crunchiness.
Lottie curled her feet up on the rattan armchair and cried into her knees.
"You're mean. You're cruel. I won't lose anything," she said. She sounded unconvinced. Frankie wondered if this mantra was something she had read in a woman's magazine, and automatically felt bad for thinking so. His head hurt. He felt tired, and tired of feelings.
Lottie moved out a week later. She didn't have many possessions. Just some clothing crumpled up in an old suitcase and a grey electric fan. Thankfully she had a relative who lived in the city – a quiet, scowling man who allowed her to stay with his family rent-free because he was a born-again Christian. "Uncle Meng is teaching me a lot of things about life, about generosity," Lottie told Frankie over the phone, several months later. He was only half-listening. Her voice sounded small and unreal – as if it had been trapped and looped in a tangle of wires.
At the end of the world party, Frankie and Lottie met again. The party took place from 17.00 hrs, in the mega church located on the top floor of a convention centre. He saw her first; was unsure, and then certain, and then unsure again. He felt a pang in his stomach, the bastard child of excitement and indigestion. Star-struck. He felt star-struck, and embarrassed by that fact. They dithered around each other by the carpeted foyer. She saw him, looked away, glanced back again. Finally, Frankie came over.
"Frankie! I didn't know you still lived around here. Manna Spring has been the family church for years," said Lottie. She held the order of service programme limply in one hand and clutched the handles of her bag in the other.
It was always the same bag she carried; black and shiny, so huge that it could contain a watermelon. Her husband hated that bag, and regularly bought her newer and more expensive variations, which she accepted, and kept in the store cupboard wrapped in plastic.
"I moved away and came back for business. I come here on and off. Sometimes I go to Kranji Methodist." replied Frankie, and smiled. He was losing some of his hair, and his polo shirt betrayed a slight paunch. Time was so predictable. Still she felt startled by his face – at once so faded, and familiar, and strange.
"Any children?" he asked, grimacing at her wedding ring.
"Two. My oldest is over there, on the phone," Lottie replied. "How about you?"
"Nah, none," Frankie said, and shrugged. His life, at forty-eight, was a bare but messy carpet. They both looked down at the order of service, printed on orange paper. The church usually alternated the colour of paper every week – some weeks it was blue paper, some weeks it was purple or pink. Frankie wondered who had picked orange, and why orange, for today.
Lottie cleared her throat and traced her soap-worn finger down the list; songs of worship, congregational announcements, a final-hurrah donation drive, four sermons, the benediction, the releasing of tongues, the all-you-can-sing.
The bottom of the page indicated: COUNTDOWN.
"I guess this is it," Lottie said, and bit her tongue.
"Not long now," Frankie said, and tried to grin.
"I know. I can't wait. I really can't wait," Lottie replied. She reached one hand into her bag out of instinct, her eyes clouding.
Sharlene Teo was born in Singapore in 1987 and worked in law and publishing before completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2013. She was the 2012/13 Booker Foundation scholar and the 2013/14 recipient of the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2014 Sozopol Fiction Fellow. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Esquire, Magma Poetry, The Penny Dreadful, Softblow, Amelia's Magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Eunoia Review. She is currently working on a novel.