I. Smooth She asked her granddaughter if she was studying hard in the USA. “Yes, grandmother, I’m studying very hard every day, in my room and in the library, studying,” her granddaughter replied.
She asked her granddaughter if she was eating well in the USA. “Yes, grandmother, I’m eating very well every day; sometimes my college even cooks Chinese food, though it is different from what we eat in Singapore,” her granddaughter replied.
She asked her granddaughter if she was able to wash her clothes in the USA. “Yes, grandmother, there are six washing machines downstairs in my hostel; you have to pay to use them but it isn’t too expensive,” her granddaughter replied.
She asked her granddaughter if she was able to iron her clothes in the USA. Her granddaughter burst out laughing. “Oh, grandmother! No one irons their clothes in college!” her granddaughter replied.
She hung up the phone, shaken.
II. The Sickness
Soon I will be eighteen. My studies are going well. The weather is bad but I have not been ill. These are the sort of things I’m ready to say. My mother pretends to read as I dial my grandmother’s number. Now that I’m home for the summer, we go through this every month. When I was in primary school, I would wait at her old flat until my parents finished work. My grandmother never went out. She hung up wet clothes, or boiled soup, or surveyed Chinese newspapers with a silver magnifying glass. Please take care; I’m taking care of myself. I’m glad to have talked to you. But my grandmother and I are gladder still to keep our conversations short. We still haven’t learned how to interest each other. My mother clears her throat; she wants me to give her the phone. In the background I hear the television going. “Yes, she’s fine, we’re all very well,” my mother says, words we always need to hear. Whatever it takes to secure a family, I imagine they’ve fixed it in me too, waiting only to be put to the test. It’s not love, but a sense of duty, which is like love, only dependable. No. When I’m honest, I know it is love. And the sickness is only the way I am – reluctant to give, to receive.
Your aunt called your mother when their father passed away and said: Go through my house, remove any sharp objects you find – knives, ice picks, letter openers, needles, scissors, screwdrivers, nails – as well as aerosol cans, rat poison, bleach, hair dye, drain cleaner, turpentine, any strong prescription medicines, any chemicals for starting fires – and keep them at your place when ma isn’t looking.
Meaning their mother; they meant to preserve her a widow.
Sit in your old closet, beside the white plastic bags swollen with hazardous implements kept as doggedly as family albums. Some people must be the mouths, giving the instructions, some the hands, doing as they’re told, and some, sitting on dark floors, behind closed doors, must consider the question of who they might replace.
Inez Tan is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers' Program, where she was awarded a Zell Fellowship for 2016. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Psychopomp, Fare Forward, Singapore Poetry, and The Irish Literary Review, and has won an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train.