Cheryl Julia Lee

We were always eating expired things. Milk, bread, biscuits, cake. We forgot about them as they sat around the house and just as they had gone bad, we put them in our mouths. Chocolates I bought back with me from Australia, cheeses in last year’s Christmas hamper, juice from the last time someone decided to go grocery shopping. We didn’t always realize they tasted funny – not everything curdles,  and a two-month old orange can be just as sweet. We finished what we had started anyway.  

The first time we felt the pain, we were taken by surprise. Each of us woke up blind in bed, arms searching, legs stumbling. We don’t remember much of the first time. The second time it happened, we were still surprised, having thought the worst was over. We bent over in waves of oh god, not again and oh god, not again. The first time, our bodies prayed. They wanted to hit back. By the third time, we felt the pain less and we knew which path to take for fastest relief – just grit our teeth, take steady breaths, and hang on to whatever is nearest. It would soon be over and we would be back in our beds, covered in sweat.

Our bodies gave us fewer and fewer problems as time went by. They say the body is fragile. It is not. The body grows in strength as it learns not to fight your mistakes. The body learns to hide your mistakes. The body habituates itself to your mistakes. Nothing embraces you better than your body. It will find ways to uncurl and stretch, though not always, and less often with time, to the sky. We learned to be content with air.

It wasn’t just the food. Things were always breaking around that time. Cup lids, the chair in the study, my parents’ marriage, camera lenses, people. Or maybe they had always been breaking down but we didn’t notice until someone stopped fixing them. The pipes whined for the longest time. I don’t think they ever stopped. From the day we moved in, there was always water trouble; either the sinks choked, or the rain leaked in, or there was work to be done outside so the water was turned off for an indeterminate amount of time. Someone fell into the drain outside during a storm. The pipes made the sound of a recorder badly played, when the finger covers too much or too little of the hole and C sharp sounds like a whistle no one answers to. If we tapped them on one side, they paused like they was taking a breath but then the whining came back again. We  made a game out of seeing how far we could walk away before it started up. Like What’s the time, Mr. Wolf? played wrong.

No one bothered to call the plumber. Maybe we all assumed there was no point since we were going to move out soon, even though we didn’t know when. And yet, my father still replaced the flickering lights. We went through so many light bulbs in that house. The interior designer told us that they were energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, and that they would last for months. The first flicker came three weeks after we moved in. My father began to buy them in bulk. There was a bulb in the hallway that was dimmer than any other in the house. It had been the first one to go,  and my father bought the wrong brand. He didn’t have to replace it again. There is another one out on the porch that shines orange some nights and white others. We shared it with the house next door, and one night, a cat broke it and we covered the leftover glass with a plastic bag. When the new neighbor moved in, he replaced it and fit the other one on his side with something similar. When we turn it on, the two on our side shine white. When he turns it on, the two on his side shine orange.

My father let it slip once that my mother was always more reluctant to hit my sister because she was pretty like a doll. I got hit a lot. I was the naughtiest and my mother worried I would go bad if she just left me sitting around. So she tried to beat it out of me. That was the way they did it back then. I skipped school once because there were too many marks on my legs and my school skirt only reached to my knees. I spent the day watching TV and eating in my parents’ room. We weren’t allowed to do that.

But that all happened in another house. In other houses. Where the food wasn’t all bad and the lights all flickering and the pipes all whining. But in that last house, we all had our own rooms. We could eat in them if we wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want ants around. I even kept my windows closed all the time so bugs couldn’t get in. A bookshelf covered one of the walls. We got it from the furniture shop and my father helped me put it together. I had stopped laughing at his jokes by then. The books on it were old, too, but they didn’t go bad. I took all of them with me when I left but I didn’t take the bookshelf.

My brother didn’t take the hammock my father put in, either. If he did, then the hooks in the wall wouldn’t make sense. He left me the shirts I was always borrowing, but he took the pet rocks I got him from a flea market. I don’t know what he does with them now. My sister didn’t take the table my brother and I helped build. It was from that furniture shop too. That house was supposed to be where we went if it got cold, where we would let our bones grow old. But we filled it up with furniture that came in pieces and super-single mattresses. My father took a purple suitcase. I don’t know what my mother took. No one took the family photo in the living room. We were all crowded together and there was no way of splitting it neatly five ways.

No one took the dining table and chairs. No one really took anything but themselves. The tables in past houses were round. This one was a long rectangle with five chairs. The extras were used for the laundry that didn’t fit on the racks outside.

We didn’t have our dinner hot. It would come steaming from the stove, but somehow, the soup and rice were always cold when we got to them. Then we learned how to have it hot. If you start the moment it hits the table, you can even have your last spoonful warm. We burnt our tongues sometimes, but as it was with the food that had gone bad, we didn’t always notice and we never cared.

Our tongues broke down in that house. We went back to sounds. But even that wasn’t worth the effort after a while. So we left the whining of the pipes, and the crying of the cats, and the gurgling in our stomachs to continue. And the silences in-between grew into walls and the names we loved became the names we didn’t call.

And when I went away from there, I really went away.


Cheryl Julia was born in Singapore and is currently an English Literature major at Nanyang Technological University. She likes to read, take photos, watch films, eat chocolate and bread, and drink coffee and tea. She dislikes anything featuring talking animals. She would also love to spend a day with you in a nice cafe, listening to your story and maybe taking your photo. Her creative writing has been published in NTU's literary journal and she performed at the Singapore Writers Festival Open-Mic 2012.