What did you want to tell me, I asked Isabelle.
Turns out I’m a molasse, she replied. Her eyes were clear and wet.
I’m moving to the sea. Here’s my new address. Write me.
She handed me a slip of paper. On it was scrawled in ballpoint capitals:
I felt flummoxed and self-conscious, the way people on television looked when they were ‘being dealt a cunning blow’ or ‘facing misdirection’. What’s a molasse, I asked? Do you mean a mollusc? Are you breaking up with me?
Hey, John, of course I’m not breaking up with you, Isabelle replied. I’m just kidding around. It’s the way of the molasse. Ha. Ha. She laughed, a little too hard. Her small hand travelled to my arm. We put her note aside, and went out to dinner.
We arrived at the restaurant, a new pan-Italian place, Modello Russo’s, just in time. Outside the rain had started coming down so forcefully that people were yowling on the pavement, really getting pelted. It was the wettest January in 250 years. Umbrellas were useless. Buckets had overflown and split down the middle. Colonies of leeches and snails had drowned in dangerous gardens.
The lighting in Modello Russo was Just So: neither flattering nor unflattering. Someone should have jazzed up the lights. I stared at Isabelle. My eyes went soft. For once she wasn’t drinking. Definitely a bad sign. She smiled, drummed her nails on the table. Her nails were painted blue, chipped in places. Dinner happened. My credit card. Young wine. Isabelle had the glass noodle vongole. It cut her tongue. I ordered the eel rigatoni. It tasted like an accident.
The following day the sky was flat and clear. Stepping out in the car park Isabelle looked fatigued. She said she did not need a lift to work. She put her hand on her stomach, and told me she had cramps from sex. She needed to walk it off. I had handled her too roughly, I’d gone in and poked everywhere, she added. I felt offended but did not say so. She turned away. Her shoes clopped loudly on the cobblestones.
It happened like that, like how it happened. Not even gradually but right from that morning she stopped replying to text messages or answering her phone. Finally, when I went to her office to look for her, her colleague told me Isabelle had quit, packed up a week ago. Left nothing but half a stack of Post-It notes, and a dying cactus. I thought that was a very extreme way of dealing with her own cowardice. She didn’t have to leave her job to leave me. She didn’t have to leave me if she told me what was wrong.
At home I turned on my laptop and clicked through pictures of us together. There weren’t many. She was camera-shy, that was one of her most ordinary phobias. In a couple of shots her eyes were shut or half-open. Never the right angle. The effect was narcoleptic, eerie. She had these light, glassy eyes. In other photos all I could make out was the worry and flutter of her thin wrists, hands over her face, bangles catching the light.
Isabelle and I had dated for five months, what is popularly termed as the ‘Honeymoon Period’. When it was it was honeyed night-time always. We had two lives. The ordinary, in boredom, in solitude, in awkward company, and that other life– lidded, teeming, uncovered only at night. As long as we were alone in the evening we were naked before we even realised— it was a compulsion, a panting force of habit. We tangled the bedspread, drenched it in sweat, we stank and grunted like pigs– she often louder, more guttural. Afterwards we barely had the energy to speak.
This is what I remember. These things about the girl. She was allergic to most brands of detergent and had to concoct and carry around her own special soaps. She didn’t read very much, but had an encyclopedic memory. Her right arm had been broken and rebroken several times. If you looked at her carefully it hung off her at an odd angle, that long arm, like a rag doll’s. She never told me what happened each of those times.
Isabelle was twenty-four, and she called it her clear and present year, her year of catastrophes. She ran her finger down my nose as she said this, tried to look into both of my eyes at the same time. Darting glance, side to side.
Her skin was milky and slightly clammy, her eyes narrow and ringed with dark circles. She smelt peaty and like potato skin. Yet I couldn’t forget her.
I worried that she had drowned herself; I had driven her to despair with my dullness or reticence. Or it was a complication I couldn’t even fathom, which made it even worse. Some black illness, a tangling of the mind– weighty, difficult.
It was a friend of a friend that told me, through social media, that Isabelle had moved back to her home city, probably for good. She wasn’t seeing anyone. She was looking for a place to live, applying for jobs. The usual things, plain and painful. At least she wasn’t hundreds of feet below the sea. I was glad, even though I had started to fantasize about a pale mermaid’s torso. Just the torso– no cartoonish tail. Gleaming breasts, wrists and hands meek and slender, knotted hair fanned out in the water.
I bought a postcard from a newsstand. It had a picture of a London telephone booth on the front. Glaring red, ring-ring. Just after lunch break, when my boss wasn’t looking, I filled it in. I maintained a neutral expression, in case anyone came by and asked me what I was writing.
You’re weird, but I guess you already knew that. Have you ever eaten any molasses? I haven’t, but I know they are used in cooking. Sugar, not sea animals. I hope you are happy where you are.
I scribbled out the address she had given me, a few short weeks ago. I had thrown the piece of paper away but it was easy to remember. I hid the postcard until the end of the day, and deposited it through a letterbox on the way to the bus stop. After that I went home and ironed all my shirts. When I reached the end of the pile it started to rain and the wind made a sloshing sound against the windows like the whole building was being submerged.
Sharlene Teo is the 2014 David TK Wong Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Her writing has appeared in places such as Esquire Singapore, Eunoia Review, and Amelia’s Magazine.