Short stories

The Outsiders

From the balcony of her window, she could see the sad, thinking man, like her, sitting near his window, looking out into the space and cool of the night, wondering if there were more to this same-same routine he had come to call his “life”. He was not unhappy; he was by all measures what most would call a happy man, who has everything one would hope for in a suburban neighbourhood. A self-made man, he achieved career and success early in his life, with family comfort dropped on his lap a decade ago when it was deemed necessary for a man of his age and status to have a fitting wife and a tidy pack of children. He was well-liked by his colleagues as he gave a measured amount of care and concern about each of their lives, and he was held in high regard by his superiors for being neatly efficient. Alas, it seems to the outside world that the only thing he lacked was a Lassie-type hound to complete the middle class dream of white picket fences and unmessy, uncomplicated contentment.

The woman, who had been watching this man for several nights now, sensed the deep currents of unhappiness in this neat package of an executive. She had seen his eyes furrow when they wandered into a destination somewhere far away from where he now was and although she was too far to see, she imagined that she caught glimpses of tears as whatever he was thinking of was too impossible to attain. Every day at midnight, he would pour himself a glass of Scotch on the rocks, drink a sip of it, lay a coaster neatly for fear of spoiling the wood of his side table, then lay the glass calmly on the coaster, before raising the glass again to drink more of it. Was it just to numb his senses to the daily act he had to perform? Or, was it to intoxicate himself so that he could arrive at that place where he so yearned to be? The woman, who escapes to her window to catch a breath in the starlight, amused herself by thinking that this man knew the secret destination of where they both wanted to be.

One night, she, sitting on the rattan chair on her balcony, with a glass of White Russian on her side table, heard the man across the road quarrel with his wife. Or rather, the wife was crying and demanding to be heard. Something about not giving her what she needs and not loving her anymore. This was not the first time the lonely woman witnessed this. Other times, it was about taking the children away. Or, moving so far he would never see all of them again. Or, about some “whores” he apparently keeps and how disgusted she is with him. Presumably, the woman guessed, the wife is trying to guilt the man into staying on. And presumably, the man no longer loves his wife. Perhaps, the wife has just cause to take away his children and leave him to his “whores”. She took some inane pleasure to speculating about this man and his life, perhaps in a way that most people indulged in celebrity gossip to avoid dealing with the drudgery of their own lives.

But mostly, the quiet, thinking man, who nightly meditates by his window, somehow draws her to him. She couldn’t help but wonder what he is thinking, what his dreams are and what he was like as a little boy. She had heard from easy neighbourly chatter that he worked in some Fortune 500 company, as a top executive in some information technology firm, that he dealt with corporate responsibility and numbers. But beyond that, the specifics escape her. She could never understand the corporate ladder and intricacies of titles, posts and responsibilities. It always seemed to her a sort of unreal computer game-like world where people held posts in their own stations, while a leader killed them all to get to the final stage. It was a sort of entangled fantasy of a reality that she would rather not get involved with. She was a dreamer who even as an adult believed that one should do something that one loved, and that one should seek to make some small difference in the world, instead of chalking up notches in one’s small belt and earning truckloads of money, only to spend it all on keeping up appearances of being well off. She was an outsider in this world of appearances and picket fences and she wished that this man, across the road, too was an outsider and closet rebel who fought against the injustices and idiosyncrasies of middle-class life.

Something interrupted the train of thoughts rushing through her manic mind. She thought she saw the man raise his glass at her, as if to say, “Hello, how are you tonight?” Perhaps she was seeing things; she has afterall not been able to get a good night’s sleep for years, staying up nightly outside this balcony to breathe in the romance of the night sky before having to face the rude awakening of the sun. She adjusted her tortoiseshell eyeglasses and squinted, and saw the man across the road looking at her. She thought to herself, “Oh no, I better go in. He knows I’ve been looking at him and that I can see what’s going on in his house. God, he must think I’m pathetic.” Before calling it a night, she, like any proper suburban neighbour, raised her glass to the man to return his greeting. Then, she stood up, turned her back, walked into her house and pulled the curtains shut.

But that night, as she went back to lie at the edge of her bed, and at the other, her husband, fallen into a deep slumber with a repetitive hypnotic snooze, her gaze fixed at the light from the gap between the curtains and wondered about that sad stranger across the street. She felt a current of excitement at the thought of his having noticed her, letting the spirit of that extra glass of White Russian take hold of her as she resisted the strong arms of her fantasy and forced herself to fall into a bland, long sleep.

While making breakfast the next morning for her husband — they have no children — she happened to see the red-haired stranger, sharply dressed in a navy blue suit, ocean blue shirt, red tie and briefcase, walking to his car, the harmony of keys ringing with his gait. Her heart thumped as she hears the sound of his keys; almost on an impulse, she mapped a quick, elaborate plan to “bump” into him, in an effort for some sort of excuse to “connect” with him at last. She removed the clasp on her hair and tousled her long, wavy black brown hair, darted for the main door, but before turning the knob, she checked herself out in the mirror on the right, making sure she looked presentable enough for this event. Taking a deep breath, she walked out of her door, pretending to be nonchalant — with her eye on the newspaper resting on her front lawn — but inside, her heart pounded so fast she felt like it would somehow fall out of the allocated space in her chest. Calculatedly, she picked up the newspaper, ran her fingers through her just-fallen locks to sweep them up as she regained measured composure standing up. The executive was just closing shut the backdoor of his car after leaving his briefcase on the empty backseat when his attention turned to the woman who had entered his line of vision. Their eyes met for a brief second, and spoke to each other as if they knew each other’s secret.

“Great weather today, huh?” the woman said coolly, trying to curb the explosive current brewing inside her, but after saying that, she instinctively realised how lame it sounded.

“Yeah, just wonderful, T-shirt blue sky. I’m so happy Spring’s here,” the executive cooed, slightly nervous and unsure of how best to handle the situation.

“Well, you have a good day ahead,” she punctuated, smiling with a twinkle in her eye, and prepared to turn and head for her door, in order to make sure not to reveal her ardour for this exchange.

“Thank you, you too.” The executive looked intently into her eyes for a second, with a slight smile on one side, opened the door to his carseat and rushed in.

The woman, flushed, walked briskly to her door, while minding her posture and after a few seconds, she turned her head to look at the going car, at a distance, getting smaller and farther away from her vision.

All day, whether she was working on her household chores or on the computer — she designs websites on commission — she thought of the phrase “T-shirt blue sky” and smiled to herself, her eyes occasionally travelling to an absurd picture in her mind of blue skies and fluffy white clouds, with a sky-blue T-shirt floating around like a kite. Then, she wondered about the riddle contained in the phrase, whether the sky is blue like the T-shirt, or the T-shirt is blue like the sky. Amusing herself with this riddle provided by the alluring stranger, she Googled “T-shirt blue sky” just to get an idea in her mind just exactly what this colour was. She found various shades of comforting blues and wondered which was the one that popped up in the mind of the intriguing executive. The thought, though she knew instinctively that it sounded absurd, occupied her mind and warmed her heart all day.

But that warmth fizzled as the clock struck 7 p.m. as she knew her husband would soon be back home. She went to the sink, splashed water at her face repeatedly, and her mind went through a sort of cleansing as well — erasing the sky blue of her mind. Tonight, she decided she will cook Bucatini All’Amatriciana with extra chilli and pepper, a tinge spicier than her husband likes it because spicy items give him indigestion. Yes, tonight, she will do it the way she likes it instead of how he likes it. He will feel discomfort anyway because of his poor state of health; she might at least enjoy the meal for once. The thought is discomfiting to her, because she was not built for selfishness, but today, she felt like a ticket to that world was handed to her: she was allowed to be selfish and do as she liked this once. Tomorrow, she’ll go back to living her husband’s life; today, she’ll explain that she had been tired because of her latest project and didn’t realise that she had added too much spice. She will say sorry, he will say it’s okay but give a long speech on how Amatriciana is done in Italy, she will nod and say she’ll hope to do better next time, and tomorrow, all will be forgotten.

“So, how was your day?” she asks, a routine question she has conditioned herself to ask, like every other dutiful wife who cares about her husband.

“Oh, same,” the husband replies, without flinching or even looking at her, lost in the inane TV show on the huge plasma screen that seemed to eat up all his attention. “Oh yeah, Sam is leaving the company. They just told us today.”

“Which Sam again?”

“You know, Sam Walker, my M.D.? He’s quitting to live in Australia with his wife and kids.”

“Hmm… what’s he gonna do there? Is he moving to another bigger company?”

The husband, with his eyes still fixed on the people on the TV, answered matter-of-factly, “Nobody knows. Apparently, he’s just ‘taking time off’; that’s all we know.”

“That’s brave… to just quit a big-title job and move to a completely new country without a job. He must have earned enough from his current job, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. These Brits earn shitloads while the rest of us earn peanuts. Anyway, they’re looking for someone to replace him. So during this time, we’ll have shitloads to do when we already have to do so fucking much,” he grimaced, while slurping a forkful of pasta.

“Hey! You could ask to be considered. You have your MBA now and you’ve been in the company for so long. You are much better than that Sam guy,” she tried to encourage him, in her best effort at being a good wife.

“Nah. They won’t consider me at all… they’re Anglo-centric. The Brits run the company. Or they’ll find someone French. Besides, I’ve been wanting to leave the company. So…”

“Hmm… I don’t think it hurts to ask. We would be able to move out of here. No harm to it, I think. Worse, they’d reject you. Best case scenario, you get noticed for your efforts finally.”

“Nah, forget it. Let’s just leave it,” his eyes still fixed on the TV people.

“Okay,” she said with a tinge of annoyance and yet a small sigh of relief at the end of this conversation.

For a second, amid the racket from the boisterous TV show, and the gulf of silence that separates the both of them, she wondered how they had arrived at this place. This place of monotonous conversations, easy irritation with each other, stale opinions, non-existent eye contact and practised smiles, with food, cats and TV always mediating the awkward impasse that had developed over the years so that they might persist on that comfortably uncomfortable status quo everybody is said to crave.

She supposed that they, like everyone else, were in love – once upon a time. And for a time, for several years, that once-upon-a-time love was what sustained the faith that this is the way things are, that they, despite of all of the prickly difficulties of reconciling the quirks of two very different personalities, would get to a place where they would grow old together, like best friends in the autumn of their life’s shared journey. But that faith withered, as flowers that once bloomed infused with the force of Spring’s warming air wilt towards the cooler seasons, as each of them began to gain gradual cognizance that although they lived in the same house, ate the same food, slept in the same bed and shared a longtime routine, they had started to walk towards different paths and had no idea, and perhaps desire, how to return to that point where they veered from each other.

He got up to go to the kitchen to place his plate at the sink. She was still eating her plate of pasta, which was exactly the same amount of serving she gave her husband. She thought back to a time where she didn’t eat this much; she can’t remember and gave up trying after a while as it has become harder for her to locate specific incidents in the past.

Nonetheless, meals have become an arduous endeavour where everything was loaded with some sort of significance. The size of the portion, for example, if she gave herself only what she wanted or needed to eat, then she would finish her meal before her husband would. And if that happened, she would have to initiate some sort of conversation to while the time until he finishes his food. If not, the silence would be so deafening it would quickly become obvious that he has nothing to say to her. And as usual, the onus would fall on the wife to try and reach out, to “understand” the husband’s hard day at work and to “be a good wife”, as her married women friends have advised her time and again. To avoid having to face this situation, she has grown accustomed to a larger serving and eating more slowly, chewing with a painstaking bite as if her life depended on each nibble. This also meant that they didn’t have to look at each other at all in the only time they actually spend together every day. This was much easier, she told herself.

“Do you want some cheese?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “I’m still trying to finish my pasta. You go ahead.”

She had gotten tired of the countless squabbles, fights, arguments and all those pointless “conversations” that supposedly help a couple to “resolve their conflicts” and “get to a place of understanding and mutual respect” but ultimately led them back to the same issues, same quarrels, same shitty routine. There would be a lot of crying on her part, a lot of passive-aggressive preaching on his part, some sort of acknowledgement of each other’s inadequacies (mostly hers), promises, hugs, romantic comedies, and then a period of lull until the next big fight. Mostly, she has realised that if she doesn’t initiate a “conversation”, her husband seems happily unhappy with keeping things the way they are, even if she didn’t speak to him for days. He is “happy”, he says repeatedly. The problem lay with her and her “stubbornness” to refuse to accept that this is all there is to life.

“What do you think other married couples do?” He often posed rhetorical questions as if they were the answers to all their problems. She often wondered if he were right, that this was all there is to it, and after years, she somehow got the hang of the idea that everything was her fault. At some point, she stopped trying to “make things better” and accepted that somehow, this was life. Her life. For life.

Listening to Dr. John Gray, Dr. Phil, Oprah and her married women friends, she kept herself busy with stuff to do, on top of her regular work, hoping to be one of those “independent”, “self-realised”, “confident” women who lead fabulous lives in spite of their partners. Women like that, according to dime-a-dozen self-help gurus, radiate confidence and attract people and positive elements to them. Some time ago, she had the distinct feeling, amid exhaustion and disillusionment, that despite her full social calendar and party masquerade, she had not risen like Lazarus to become the phoenix Oprah said she would be. If anything, she felt even lonelier amid the moving traffic of pretend faces moving in and out of her life, and the noise outside made the stillness at home even more threatening, more piercing, more immediate. It made her more depressed, obsessed with reading up on women who shared the same fate as she did, hoping that she was not the only one in the world who felt the way she did and perhaps, in the process, find some sanity. She especially identified with the American poet, Sylvia Plath, which worried her a little, since the intellectual, inebriated with the absurdity of mundane family life, stuck her head in a baked oven as a last resort. Since her self-empowerment project had failed considerably, the lonely website designer immersed herself in work and charity, hoping to give some hope and help to others, instead of wallowing in her own existential problems.

This arrangement was an optimal state of affairs for her; nevertheless, at night, the pressure of the dark skies would engulf her and make her mind ponder again on the possibilities of life and love she tried so hard to shut out. Mostly, she would just wait for her husband to doze off, between 11.30 p.m. and 11.45 p.m., then make herself a White Russian and sit out on her balcony and let her thoughts run off with the night, like a patient etherised on a therapist’s chair. She would usually get back to her normal self at daybreak. But a month ago, new people moved into the house across the street, after having been vacant for a long time when the former owner, an old lady who kept to herself, died in her rocking chair last Spring – alone. Some neighbours said she had a smile on her face when they took her. But anyway, the new neighbours. When they first moved in, she, like any good suburban neighbour, said hello to them; after that perfunctory greeting, she would give a pleasant-enough smile to acknowledge their presence, but other than that, they minded their own businesses.

One late evening, two weeks ago, she began hearing loud squabbles coming from the house across the street, and the one-sided arguing and pleading made her think of her own desperate altercations with her husband. At that time, she empathised with the wife, convinced that they were in the same boat and that her husband is scum and must somehow take her and the kids for granted. It must be so, she thought, the poor wife must suffer with such a man, so successful and egregious on the outside and yet so cold and calculated on the inside. She was sure that he must be a cheating bastard as well. The thought stirred her indignation and disgust for this man she didn’t know anything about, and wondered if the wife and herself could be commiserating best friends. They would complain about their ridiculous non-husbands together and maybe, like Thelma and Louise, embark on a thrilling adventure alone. She laughed to herself at the absurd manic thoughts running through her mind about another’s problems, which momentarily edged her own aside.

To be continued…

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