Cotton, Grass and Rain
For Melvin Lam Wee Pinn, the best part about Lee Lian is that his own affliction disappears whenever she’s around. He is stretched out on a long black sofa, his arm draped about her. They’re watching Star Trek: Into Darkness in her apartment near Orchard Road, Singapore’s main street, where they’ve moved to be near their office, and away from his mother.
Lost in the saga playing out on the screen, Lee Lian holds Melvin’s hand to her cheek, and keeps it there. It makes Melvin feel like Alexander Rembrandt—his avatar in the virtual world, Lost Paradise—adored and admired. In fact, his visits to that made-up world are now rare. Real life feels too good to be spent roaming the virtual.
When an ad break comes on, Lee Lian untangles herself and walks to the kitchen. He registers her absence on his skin. He is about to get up and find her when she returns, with cupcakes on a small tray, and coffee.
“From my baking class.” She sets the tray on the table in front of him, placing a knife and tissue parallel to the tray, just the way he liked.
Melvin takes a bite, licking off the chocolate from his lips. He tries to make the taste linger in his mouth, long after the last crumb has disappeared. She curls up, wriggling to get back to her old position.
She turns to him. “When you first saw me, did you think we’d get together?”
“Frankly, no.” He doesn’t like the path this conversation is taking.
“Why? You thought you were too good for me, huh?”
“No, the other way round, actually..” He nuzzles Lee Lian’s hair, her neck. He hopes to distract her enough to take the evening in an entirely different direction.
She smells of fresh laundry, of rain in strange lands. He knows now that her perfume is Cotton, Grass and Rain by Marc Jacobs. He likes the softness of her, because she makes him forget the hard edges of his mother, the dark corners of his loneliness, the dry scratch of his own thoughts. She may not have the most symmetrical face, or the most soulful eyes, but whenever she’s around, which is most of the time, he feels his limbs unwind, his breath come easier.
“Why?” Lee Lian scoots up against him.
“You are too good for me, that’s why.”
“Look at these muscles,” her fingers run on his arms, teasing, “that smile, what’s not to like?” She blushes. “And so eager to please! Why would I be too good for you?”
“Nothing. Just like that.”
“It can’t be nothing. You’re twenty-eight now, and a virgin when I met you. You use a little too much perfume, but other than that…”
“You choose my perfume.”
“That’s no reason for you to bathe in it, M.”
Melvin likes the way she has shortened his name, taken away the words, stripped off the syllables. He looks at her and smiles, though his heart is not in it.
“Why did you never have a girlfriend before me, Melvin?” The minute she shifts from “M” to “Melvin”, he knows she means business.
“I hate it when you frown,” she turns to kiss his brows, but the question in her eyes remains.
All these months with Lee Lian, he has known that it wouldn’t last.
At his work desk, headphones on, Melvin checked on Alexander Rembrandt. Being a virtual world, Lost Paradise had many of the advantages that Melvin’s real life did not. For one, Alexander had a girlfriend. He had a father as well as a mother. Both adopted, of course, but they chatted and joked over dinner at his home in LP.
As Alexander, Melvin joined a beach party going on somewhere in the LP version of California. He watched as Alexander made his moves, whispered his breathy voice into one girl’s ear, patted the waist of the next. A tag floating above Alexander’s head showed his name, and the perfume he was wearing, Nefertum. Alexander usually wore something that sounded musky, inviting. Melvin spent a lot of time imagining those fragrances.
Having checked on his virtual world, Melvin turned to the real. He was about to start work for the day when he felt a pat on his shoulder.
Melvin did not like to be touched. Everyone in his office knew that. Even the software firm’s burly project manager, Patrick, or Pat as he liked to be called, with a ponytail and a tendency to slap people on the back, held off. Melvin had never felt any touch other than the scrape of his mother’s palms, so the tap on his shoulder made him jump.
Turning around, he found a short, plump young woman wearing black-rimmed squarish spectacles.
“Sorry. I knocked and called you …I’m Tan Lee Lian, the new assistant to Mr. Patrick Sheridan. His office is locked.”
Melvin looked at her, making no effort to take her proffered hand, which dropped back to her side. The girl looked more uncertain than disgusted: she hadn’t detected his curse yet. He tried not to think about it. His nose filled with her perfume instead. He couldn’t place it; familiar yet strange, like rain on dried grass, like the musty corner in the library, all rosewood and old books, where he used to hide in school.
“Sorry. I’m Melvin. Bit zoned out, didn’t hear you.”
“That’s ok,” Tan Lee Lian’s gaze strayed around his cubicle, “Isn’t that Lost Paradise you have there?”
Melvin minimized his screen. He longed to be like Alexander Rembrandt at that moment, fresh smelling, self-assured.
“How can I help you?”
“I was just wondering if you’d show me where you get your coffee? I could use some.”
The girl sounded confident but looked unsure. Melvin didn’t know what to think of her. Soon enough it won’t matter. She would move away from him, just like everyone else. He took her to the small pantry tucked away behind the cubicles, talked her through the quirks of the coffee machine. As others trickled in, he walked back to his workspace, a windowless corner cubicle with a blank softboard and a spotless table on which piles of paper sat in neat rows beside the screen.
Once back at his space, he calmed down. He had on a fresh set of clothes, and perhaps the odor was still too faint for Lee Lian to detect– the odor that made it difficult for him not to change his underwear often. Difficult, because he wet himself on occasion. He couldn’t get the stench of urine out of his nostrils, fresh urine, stale urine. He washed his hands with scented soap every time he peed, and a few more times in between.
Before a meeting, he sprayed himself with perfume, hit the office shower if he had time. A set of fresh clothes sat in his lowest desk drawer under lock and key, an exact copy of the outfit he’d worn that day to work. He changed at lunchtime, after visiting the washroom. He had researched his problem on the internet and knew that “incontinence was a problem for the elderly, the invalid, the pregnant, and sometimes, the menopausal.”
Down the years, Melvin had had few moments of relief. Always there, like second skin, the smell of musty urine. It lurked on his bedclothes when he woke up as a boy; it flourished in big, rusty yellow patches on his bedsheet. He remembered a time when only the bed reeked, but slowly it crept up like a stealthy fog over his pants, his T-shirts, took over every stitch of his clothing. No wonder, because for seventeen long years, hardly a day passed when he did not wet his bed.
His mother kept him in diapers for as long as she could, then took to putting a rubber cloth under his sheets, waking him in the middle of the night to make him go to the bathroom, setting him alarms. Most nights he would dream of his mother waking him up, or his alarm going off. He saw himself getting up and walking to the toilet. He woke up much later, soggy and cold.
When he grew far beyond the age children wet their beds and his nightly accidents continued, his mother smacked him every morning, till it became a ritual. As the years passed, he still wet himself, woke up, went to his mother’s room. She had stopped hitting him, but would say, “Again?” The word fell on him with the impact of a hard slap.
Sometimes, she shouted as she changed his sheets. “You-ah, lam pah chai, I wish you had a father, so he can kick you out of this one. Sang koh chuk sang, hou koh sang lei. Don’t stare at me, your father looked like that– see where he ended up? Woodbridge, hah! You also want to go there-ah ? Do you know they’ll shut you up and make me pay for you also? I work day and night for what? So I can pay for you! Cannot, cannot. I need to save money for my own funeral too, you know!”
Slowly, it became a look: his mother’s look brewed in such disgust and hatred that Melvin almost peed himself when he met her eyes. As time passed, she let him sleep in soiled sheets, his dreams swathed in a stink that belonged to the drains beneath the house. When he grew old enough to change the sheets himself, he did so, but made a mess when he tried to wash them. Even after he learned to do the laundry, his mother went on about the cost of detergent. As soon as he could, he got a job and moved out.
He shuffled to and from his office, running a few errands to take care of his daily needs. He did most of his shopping online. Sometimes he longed for an offline, real-world chat, but who would like to be friends with someone who stank like a public urinal? He read books instead. Iain Banks took him to world systems far away from his own, through Gene Wolfe he met twisted people with a sort of disconnect that made his own problems look silly, and Philip Dick helped him question the very nature of reality. He could count on them. In the real world, people never stayed around unless they wanted something.
He had been at work for only an hour when Lee Lian walked in again.
“Pat wants you to look through this.”
Lee Lian smiled at him before she walked out. Patrick had become “Pat” to her as well. Not a bad guy, Patrick, as far as ang mohs go. You could hardly blame a guy for taking advantage of his skin color if the girls around him couldn’t get enough of it.
“Thanks, I’ll call Patrick if I need to ask anything.”
Lee Lian didn’t hear him. He liked the way she mouthed her words, the way her lips curled around each syllable. She didn’t have the nasal twang of his mother.
After she left, Lee Lian’s perfume lingered in the air, not a strong statement, more an insisting afterthought. Melvin stared at the screen, his hands limp. He couldn’t smell that insidious horror. He could breathe, savor the moment. He had begun to feel a little like Alexander Rembrandt. The only new thing around him was Lee Lian, but Melvin refused to think of her, of how she would never talk to him again. He let himself luxuriate in this sudden reprieve from the smell that never left him alone.
An e-mail popped up on screen, breaking his reverie. Another of the boys needed some bailing out. Melvin’s colleagues knew he could make programs do what others couldn’t. They offered to take him out on lunch or dinner from time to time, always on e-mails like this one, when they wanted something done. He figured out a quick solution, shot it back.
After work that evening, Melvin found himself smiling at all his co-passengers on the train ride home. He received puzzled or irate looks in return but didn’t mind. When he got home, he found the books he’d ordered last week waiting for him, among them a collection of Wolfe’s stories. He read past midnight, and for once he slept well. But morning brought him back to his reality: he wasn’t Alexander Rembrandt, indomitable world-conqueror. He was Melvin Lam, bed-wetter extraordinaire. The last time this happened he was back home with his mother. The odor had made a comeback. He caught the now stinking Wolfe, gloving his hand in a plastic packet, and dumped it inside the dustbin.
He toyed with the idea of skipping work, picked up his stained mattress and laid it in the balcony where it would catch the sun, threw the sheets and his bedclothes in the machine with some Dettol, washed himself, then went to the outer room and lifted a few weights. The smell of sweat refreshed him, scattering away the mist of urine. On the table beside the bare bed, he lay out in a straight line a set of two identical blue shirts, gray pants, two pairs of blue socks, all ironed last night. Once he emerged from the shower in his fresh underwear, he could still detect a faint reek under the layers of soap, shampoo and after-shave, so he sprayed himself with deodorant—under his armpits, on his underwear. He dabbed perfume on his wrist, on his throat and chest, behind his ear.
Reaching for his clothes, he remembered Lee Lian— how he could smell fresh laundry when she was around him. He dipped his face in his shirt for a moment before putting it on.
“This shirt looks good on you,” he imagined her saying, “Blue is your color.”
For the moment Melvin felt rid of the odor. He was hungry, so he went into the kitchenette. He detached the pot from the coffee machine, went to the cupboard and removed a tin. He took the knife that lay parallel to the right side of the tin, pried away the lid, took out two biscuits, and put them on a big, spotless white plate, not touching each other.
He’d got the biscuits delivered fresh from the baker’s the day before, and they had a tang of caramel. He wished he could make his apartment smell of warm food: stir-fries and bakes, simmering soups and meat cooking in spices. He often dreamt of bottling the fragrances at a bakery or a restaurant and releasing them into his kitchenette, the antiseptic little corner of his apartment that reminded him of his mother’s home of takeaway packs and pizza boxes.
He wondered if Lee Lian could cook, whether she would cook something for her husband when she got married.
“Babi ponteh is ready,” he heard Lee Lian say, “and I made some nyonya assam fish too. You like spicy, right?
“Yes, I do,” he put his arms around her, “but come here first.”
She laughed, her voice soft, and her eyes grew softer still as he took her in his arms. She melted away as he touched her, and he stood alone in his kitchenette.
He picked up the coffee pot, sniffed it, devouring its fragrance with his nose, leaving no room for any other smell. He placed a shining white cup in the middle of the plate, at equal distance from both biscuits, and poured the coffee.
While putting the jar and the tongs back, he felt himself leak. He dropped his pants, checked them for wetness, found none. He folded the pants so as not to ruin their crease and draped them on the dining chair. Made his way to the toilet, checked the underwear. Not wet either. He washed his hands, changed into fresh underwear and went back to the dining table. His coffee had grown cold, but he gulped it down anyway.
The phone squalled in the living room, but Melvin ignored it—must be his mother checking on him. Let her think he’d left already. He shuddered in disgust as he put on the pants and the stench of urine overpowered him, but he couldn’t be late for office. He walked out and climbed the steps of the Toa Payoh train station, engulfed in a cloud of urine, shrinking from the people standing there, sure they would smell him and turn away. Singapore did its best not to stink, Melvin was all too aware of that.
He cowered in a corner of the train and tried to distract himself by figuring out a piece of programming in his head so he didn’t need to wonder whether the others looked his way. The lady in the printed pink headscarf on the opposite corner stared at him, her nose slightly curled in a sniff. She could smell him all right.
As he walked down the pavement of the Orchard station to his office, he tried to think of incense at the altar, of old books unpacked, of soursop juice on sunny afternoons, of starchy bedclothes, of fresh-dried paint, of Lee Lian and her fragrance. But when he entered the office, he seemed to have carried the sewer in with him. He dived into work, hoping not to meet anyone, especially not Lee Lian.
At lunchtime, he went for his usual change of clothing. He ran into her on the way back.
“I was waiting for you.” Lee Lian eyed the bag in which he carried his clothes.
“Sorry, how can I help?”
“Here are some papers from Pat.”
“Patrick sent me more?” He rifled through the papers. “But I already have soft copies of these!”
“I know,” Lee Lian shifted from one foot to the other. “Would you like to show me where you usually have lunch?”
Melvin ate his lunch right there at his desk every day, packing his food from the stall below, but he couldn’t tell her that. Patrick wasn’t the only ang moh in the office, and the rest didn’t have Melvin’s problem. No girl in this office or anywhere else ever spoke to him, not for a second time, so he couldn’t be stupid about this. He had just changed, and Lee Lian may not be able to smell him if he sprayed something on. He could pull off a half-hour break without embarrassing himself.
“Okay, could you wait for me at your desk? I’ll be there in a minute.”
Easier said than done, because he had no idea where to take her.
“You mean all this time you thought…?” She shakes her head. “That’s why you were never close to anyone?”
“Have you told anyone about this? How would they know if you don’t tell them?”
Melvin is silent.
“Ah, I see. You thought they could smell you, so they knew anyway!” Her face turns red.
Melvin nods again, though he is puzzled: of course, they can smell me, only you, my Lee Lian, only you do not.
“You know it’s all in your head, don’t you? That there never was nor will be any smell, other than your storehouse of perfumes?”
Not being able to look into the future like his friends Iain Banks or Gene Wolfe, Melvin does not know what to say. That there may not be an odor at all hasn’t occurred to him. She couldn’t be right, could she? But if she can smell perfumes, she can smell things. What if she is right?
“And then it all just went away when you met me?” Lee Lian breaks into his thoughts.
“Still there when you’re not around.” He lowers his eyes.
“Six months, M.” Lee Lian sounds calmer now. “You should’ve told me.”
He knows this is it. He will move back to his old apartment, maybe even move in with his mother for a few days if his apartment is not immediately available.
“We’ll find a shrink,” Lee Lian says, and settles back in his arms for Saturday Night Live.
Melvin doesn’t know it yet, but three years later, he would wear the “real” Nefertum fragrance. Lee Lian would find it on the commercial website of Lost Paradise. It would be her wedding gift to him.
Damyanti Biswas’s short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Ambit, Puerto Del Sol, Litro, Griffith Review Australia, Pembroke Magazine and other journals in the USA and UK. She serves as one of the editors of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut literary crime novel You Beneath Your Skin was published by Simon & Schuster India in autumn 2019 and optioned for TV adaptation by Endemol Shine.