by Sharon Y. Sim
The cigar-smoking, karaoke-loving Russian distributor my sales guys have been courting for months is waiting for me on the twenty-eighth floor of the Raffles City Tower.
My chauffeur finally gets me there after tailgating and cutting off several cars. As I step out of my black Mercedes-Benz, floating dark spots the size of golf balls besiege me. I squint and curse the punishing sun piercing through the glass roof of the driveway. I try to read time but see a fuzzy watch face with scrambled numbers and lines. I hasten toward the building entrance. A few steps shy of the door, I collapse.
I wake up in a hospital bed and see my wife of twenty-eight years by my side.
Yue Mei smiles and squeezes my hand. But realizing I’ve missed the meeting, I jump out of bed and start putting on my clothes.
“Sorry Cary, the doctors said they need to keep you here to run some tests.” She shoos me back under the blanket and tells me my assistant has cleared my calendar. I try to say more but my eyelids weigh on me like warm silver coins and I drift off to sleep. When I wake again, I am alone. It is dark in the room, but outside the window, I see a lit billboard of an elderly couple smiling and each holding a bottle of Lion Balm, the world’s number one selling pain relief ointment, on their palms.
Lion Balm, my product, is now embraced by everyone from housewives with headaches to athletes with achy joints. Well, technically, it’s my grandfather’s invention. The year I was born the eldest male descendent of a new generation of the Chen family, the same year he opened his first factory, my destiny was sealed. When I was a kid, my father often whisked me away from one of my solitary readings at home of another gripping fairy tale and dropped me in the middle of our factory on Pasir Panjang Road.
“Son, watch me and learn.” I followed him as we meandered through the length and breadth of the factory floor. He stopped every so often to commend a floor supervisor or admonish another. The clank of gigantic smoke-filled boiling pots, the chatter of uniformed workers, the sights of their busy, purposeful hands, the smells of menthol, camphor and cajuput oils hit me all at once. While I stared at the workers with glazed eyes and held on tight to my father’s big, reassuring hand, I had silently wished for home so I could find out if Snow White actually took a bite of that wicked queen’s apple.
Someone knocks on my hospital door. A nurse enters and brings me dinner on a tray. She blinds me momentarily as she turns on the fluorescent light overhead. She speaks fast, like she has other places to go, but tells me my wife will return the next day with my children. I chew on braised chicken cutlets, steamed carrots and white rice, and remember the day I turned twenty, sitting across from my parents in a posh Chinese restaurant in the middle of a ten-course meal and a birthday cake waiting on the side.
“Son, for your birthday, we’ll give you the best education money can buy.”
I remember blowing out the candles, opening my present – a Mont Blanc pen – and walking out of the restaurant feeling so loved. Not too long after, my father, along with my teary-eyed mother, and an extended family of thirty-three, whisked me this time, to Singapore’s spanking new Changi Airport.
“Remember son: Today, Singapore. Tomorrow, the world.” Before we parted, my father patted me on the shoulders – the closest he had come to giving me a hug – and reminded me of our family’s dreams for Lion Balm and me.
“Yes sir.” I saluted him, and boarded a plane bound for England 9,000 miles away.
At the London School of Economics, I learned everything I promised to learn – micro- and macroeconomics, international marketing and distribution, financial and organizational management – and slowly became my father’s clone.
The wall clock in my hospital room ticks louder as the night hushes up. I drift off to sleep again and awake when my nine-year-old daughter tugs at my hospital gown. The room is flooded with sunlight and family now. My uncles, aunts, cousins banter with me. Yue Mei hands me my favorite charshu buns. I am famished and almost swallow them. She soon ushers everyone out and hangs on to me as we maneuver through the hospital maze to begin a series of MRIs, X-rays and pet scans. In the cloistered tunnel of the MRI, my thoughts burrow into unexpected things.
When the London leaves turned orange, then brown and dropped from the spindly trees, and snow drizzled, then pounded and buried the university walkways and lawns, I learned some things my family didn’t intend for me to learn.
On impulse, I signed up for a creative writing class. At the end of a class session, after reading out loud a story about dreams, professor Wishfulthinken approached me and suggested that I “…should seriously think about becoming a writer.” How did he know?
Did he have eyes that penetrated my heart and a hatchet that split my brain and spilled my thoughts? How did he know that of late, the words from Terry Prachett and Gabriel García Márquez had given me more joy than a life story already written for me? That more than anything, I wanted to write like I needed to breathe?
After class, I had a beer with Andrew, my classmate, at the Seven Stars Pub on Carey Street. We got to talking about names. I told him that I, Cary Chen Jia An, had to “carry” the good name of the family until I die, to ensure that like my Chinese name, Jia An (家安), our multi-generational family live under one roof in harmony and peace. Andrew let out a low whistle. He was the son of an impoverished single mother. He worked three jobs to pay his school fees and said he had no idea what he would do after graduation.
“But if there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s you.” Andrew said when we reached my apartment door step that night. He gently brushed my hair from my forehead and held my hands as his light brown eyes glistened with hope and love. The light from the street lamp caused dancing snowflakes to float and form a halo around his head. I thought I was levitating like the snowflakes too. That wintry night, Andrew became my first and last boyfriend. We spent the remainder of my university years together, in laughter and ease when we were alone, but acting like platonic friends in public.
Three days in the hospital remind me of the time when I longed for my first English winter to end. Today, I’m seated with Yue Mei, across from Dr. Lim, who has the results of my tests. He tells me through bespectacled eyes and a mousy voice that I have a large tumor in the left front cortex of my brain, that it is cancerous and inoperable. He tells me I have six months, nine months at most, and that I should start wrapping up my earthly affairs. My wife tightens her grip on my hand. I see a tear crawl down her left cheek, but she holds herself back. I don’t know how to feel but start remembering the days after my father’s death.
“Your father lived a good life Cary.” “He was a great businessman, and a wonderful family man.” “He’s lucky he has you to succeed him.” I had just graduated and returned from England to find myself in the middle of my father’s funeral service. Condolences bombarded me. Responsibilities chained me. My mourning mother looked to me. In the midst of clashing cymbals, chanting monks and crying relatives, I felt the full weight of my destiny, and suddenly felt ashamed of my writerly dreams and my secret love.
After the funeral, I threw myself into the business and started expansion in earnest. Along the way, I also married Yue Mei, the daughter of my father’s best friend, had five children and became the extended family’s patriarch in our fast-growing multi-story mansion.
Thirty glorious years flew by while I stayed simultaneously awake and asleep at the wheel of my life. Today, Lion Balm is a recognized international brand with millions of customers in Africa, the Americas, Middle East and Europe. Last month, I received the Singapore Businessman of the Decade Award at the Istana Presidential Palace handed out by our president himself. Yue Mei and our children clapped from front row seats.
Back in my hospital bed, Yue Mei hovers over me. She props my pillows, and passes me coffee and The Straits Times. Her manicured peach nails brush a fleck off my face.
Her touch is gentle, her brown eyes bordered by dark circles and laced with concern. She brushes my hair to the side, kisses my forehead and whispers “I love you.” But I can’t look her in the eye. Instead, I stare at the elderly couple smiling back at me from the billboard outside. I wonder if I could use Lion Balm to soothe the tormented emptiness in my heart.
I keep thinking about Andrew, about our times in the pub, in class, at home, and how I slammed the door on him on our last day together. I wonder if he ever forgave me, and if he is now living the life we once dreamt about with someone more deserving than me.
My thoughts drift to the stories I wrote for class, to the ones that were published and to the stories I was supposed to write. I see an image of my professor’s periwinkle eyes peeking out from under his droopy eyelids. I see my classmates’ smiles. They’re telling me how my stories transport them, and make them feel, think, see and hear. I sense my wife’s loving, worried gaze boring into me. I tear my eyes away from the billboard and force myself to look at her and say “I love you too.”
I had groomed my eldest son to succeed me. He would soon graduate from Wharton Business School and come home next week. My work is done. The newspapers, my peers, family members and the charities I have supported will praise me and broadcast my success to the world.
I should die a happy man. But truth be told, I will die at the ripe old age of fifty-five, a broken man, a fraud.