An extract from a novel-in-progress about two queer friends in Hong Kong who decide to engage in a marriage of convenience.
the morning of
The sound of ringing, and Alex is awake. Eyes still shut, he reaches for the empty side of the mattress where his phone usually sleeps and comes into painful contact with the edge of something solid and wooden. The bed is too narrow, he realises. His hand smarts. He blinks into vision, up at unblemished white, wondering where all the blisters and cracks on his own rented ceiling have disappeared to. Breathes in the scent of stale cupboard on his pillow, the mothball stink of long unused sheets. So he is at home, Ma and Ba’s home.
The ringing again, and ah, there: his phone on the bedside table, still and silent. 6:36am. Not the alarm then. He hears the clatter of the latch getting unhooked, the click of the door opening. The doorbell. It’s been so long since he’s slept here that he’s forgotten what Ma and Ba’s doorbell sounds like. He pulls the covers back over his head, trying to cocoon himself back into sleep. Ma’s voice comes muffled through the door and his comforter, and another voice responds. Nikki, always the first to arrive.
The hinges of his bedroom door whine, and there’s Nikki, pulling at his comforter.
‘Up and out,’ she says. ‘Come on.’
‘I’m supposed to have until seven,’ he mumbles into the blanket. ‘Twenty minutes.’
‘You have a big day ahead of you.’ She wrenches the blankets away. ‘Up.’ He’s half-lifted, half-shoved out of bed, rudely reminded of how much stronger she is. Inter-school judo champion back in her day, rock-climbing coach now. His one jock friend. Every line of muscle earned at the dojo and the climbing wall is stark on the skin of her arms as she rolls him onto the floor. She used to pin him down onto the bed when they were together, and he misses that. Maybe just a little.
‘Ow,’ he says, mostly out of habit.
‘Sorry.’ She holds out a hand, looking not at all sorry.
‘You didn’t have to judo throw me.’
‘Only if you’d gotten out of bed like a good boy.’
Nikki still has her hand out, waiting expectantly in front of his face. He rolls his eyes, takes her hand, and she pulls him onto his feet. Kicks him into the bathroom in record time. He takes a leak, scrubs the sleep grit off his face with a wet towel — Nikki would go ballistic if she saw him. ‘You’ve got to be gentle,’ she would say. ‘Or you’re going to get wrinkles at the age of thirty.’ He slows, considering, and runs the cloth more carefully around his eyes. Then goes back to scrubbing roughly around his jaw. He’ll get wrinkles anyway. It’s useless to dwell on inevitabilities, and he doesn’t like thinking of bodies changing in ways he can’t control. Like how he’d woken up one day at thirteen years old with blood in his underpants and ached, in his abdomen and everywhere, thinking of the ways his body was destined to grow, so he simply tries not to anymore.
He’s brushing his teeth when Nikki crowds into the space with him, holding an eyelash curler and leaning right into the mirror to clamp down on her lashes. He winces. He tried that once years ago, had stolen her curler out of curiosity, pressed the loops together and right onto his eyelids.
‘Can’t believe I still have to do this,’ she mutters, holding the curler in place over her eye.
‘Oo wha’?’ he says around his toothbrush.
‘Get you out of bed, get you ready like a big fucking baby.’
He snorts. Accidentally swallows some toothpaste. Gets the water running and spits down the drain. She’s carefully raking mascara up her lashes now.
‘Isn’t there a mirror in my room?’ he asks, lathering foamy cleanser onto his face. Water splashes out of the basin and his red silk pyjamas darken, plastering wet against the skin of his belly. Nikki expertly sidesteps the cascade of water.
‘Light’s better here.’ She screws the mascara cap back on, makeup done. Eyeliner, just a touch of eyeshadow, bathroom lights catching the sheen of her highlight and deepening the contour.
‘You look good,’ he says, and is proud of himself that he means nothing more by it.
‘Thanks.’ She leans against the door and reaches out to touch his hair. ‘You didn’t cut it in the end.’
‘No.’ He rakes his fingers over his scalp. ‘Just had it trimmed a bit. Gave it a bit of shape. Nearly buzzed all of it off last week,’ he tells her. ‘Had a bit of a freak out,’ and turned all the drawers inside out looking for his Wahl kit. Even had the clippers humming in his hand before he realised what he was doing and reluctantly packed it away, called in sick to the weekend event at work, and walked to the salon two blocks over.
But last night, he had sat with Ma while she combed his hair in ritual, and she’d been so gentle with it that at first, he didn’t believe it was Ma. Ma, who would jerk and tug at the knots in his hair when he was a child, pulling the strands into a tight ponytail before school, that he’d step on the school bus with the skin around his temples pulled rigid and his eyelids still blinking back tears.
With the two candles lit and the smell of incense drifting through the living room, Ma did her ten strokes with the comb, while next to her, the Dai Kam Jeh recited:
When the Dai Kam Jeh had fallen silent at last, there was Ma, deftly sliding the hairpin threaded with red string and pine and lily into his hair. Something hot had risen in Alex, up his chest and into his head, threatening to redden his eyes but not from pain on his scalp, as it was when he was a child. And for once, he was able to bear the way his hair tickled his nape and fell over his ears, able to bear Ma’s hands on his hair, combing through the strands with fortune in every caress.
‘Well, I guess you pull off this American surfer boy look,’ Nikki says now.
‘I’m looking more MK than surfer boy.’
She moves to stand behind him, twists the hair near his temples into two quick plaits and holds it in a ponytail. ‘This doesn’t look too bad, does it? We can make it wavy so you look extra surfer. Remember when you had a crew cut?’ She shakes her head.
‘Hey! I kind of liked that one.’
‘You looked like you were coerced into joining the PLA,’ she says.
In his bedroom, he dangles the strapless silicone bra Ma made him buy between his thumb and index finger and stares at it. The box on the bedside table next to him reads Invisible Bra. He’d bought it hastily at a hole-in-the-wall store that sold lingerie on Granville while getting home from work weeks ago and had shoved it in the corner of his wardrobe when he got back, unnerved and slightly turned on by the hot nude lady on the box giving him a sultry look. The bra is tacky on his fingers, and he’s reminded of the first jelly dick he’d ever bought from some store in Mong Kok that he had to hike three storeys to find. Not a packer, he didn’t know where to get those yet, back then.
‘Jesus Christ, this feels like a melted dildo and I’m supposed to stick this on my-?’ He spots his binder from the mess of sheets where he’d tossed it and yearns.
Nikki shrugs, swivelling on his child-sized desk chair. ‘So it stays on,’ she says. ‘And then you can forget about it for the rest of the day.’
He looks at the bra again and doubts it’ll slip his mind while it’s latched onto his chest like a starfish. But today’s all about sucking it up, isn’t it.
Pyjama top off, he slaps one cup on and then the other, shuddering at the chill of silicone on his skin. He looks down, two mounds of flesh held together, enough for there to be a shallow valley between them. He slips the pyjama top back on but catches himself in the mirror, the one glued to the inside of his closet doors that are halfway ajar, sees the modest but unmistakeable curve swelling from his chest, and then it arrives. A tide rushing in.
‘What does it feel like?’ Nikki had once asked. ‘I want to understand.’
‘I can’t describe it,’ he’d said.
That feeling of light-headedness, like someone has taken a scalpel around the circumference of his head and popped the top off. Revulsion that sweeps in like the tide of a tsunami, swift and flood-like. The conviction that everything is unreal, that the mirror’s reflection is dishonest. A sickness like being at sea, feeling tossed. Knocked out of your body and yet insatiably obsessed with it. Third person is such a lonely consciousness.
‘It’s very solipsistic,’ he’d said eventually.
Now, it crests like the hill on his chest. Silk draped, delicately, maiden-like. He snaps his head away, kicks the closet door shut with his heel. ‘Okay fuck, no, I’m not doing that.’
He pulls the pyjama top back up over his chest — ‘Careful with that,’ Nikki says — and uses his free hand to rip the silicone off his skin. Sits down heavily on his bed. Remembers the way he used to tear duct tape off his chest, muddling through binding as a teenager, convinced that doing it quicker would mean less pain. His skin would blister, red like a brand, would bleed if he pulled the duct tape too steep from his skin. Under his bedcovers, his hands find the nylon of his binder.
‘That bad?’ Nikki asks.
‘The binder’s going to be visible under your gowns.’
‘Well I can’t wear the fucking— that.’ He gestures at the Invisible Bra splattered sadly on the floor.
‘Kinesio?’ she says.
Shit, he’d forgotten his sports tape. Lying abandoned on the kitchenette in his flat. He lets out a sharp breath, pissed at himself. ‘Do you have any?’
‘I only have blue.’ A jock, after all. She throws him a wheel of Kinesio tape, and he snatches it out of the air.
He makes quick work of the tape while she does up her hair. There’s a blunt pair of scissors in the drawer of his bedside table that he uses to cut the tape into strips. He tugs the top off again and starts pulling the hanging flesh sideways over his ribs, smoothing the tape over his skin so it holds. It’s been some time since he last used tape. Not quite as effective as his binder, more finicky and more expensive in the long run, but less visible in shirts that cut too low down his collarbones. There’s the uncomfortable stretch and the tightness that comes from any form of binding, but he’s had over a decade to get used to it. He plasters an extra fifth strip on each side and checks his handiwork. It needs to be secure. Last the whole day. The tape puts up an admirable effort, but there are still curves and shadows like a deflated ball leeched to the side of his torso. He smooths the flesh further back, though there is no give anymore, and considers adding another strip that’ll run underneath his scapula.
‘Al, it’s fine,’ Nikki says. She sticks a bobby pin into her hair.
He puts the tape down, yielding. Shrugs his top back on, ready for Ma to arrive and dress him. The fabric swallows up the dips and curves of his torso, and he’s grateful that he no longer has to look at the criss-cross of tape over his skin.
‘Let’s get your face on,’ Nikki says, and he sits obediently at the edge of the bed in front of her. He wouldn’t trust anybody else with his face.
She smooths primer over his skin. Squeezes foundation onto the back of her hand, dabs at it with a beauty blender. The bottle’s new, he notices. A paler shade than what Nikki usually wears. His shade.
‘How much was that?’ he asks her, pointing at the bottle. ‘You could’ve just told me to get some.’
‘It’s nothing,’ she says. ‘Ask you to get some and risk you buying, what was that last time? Cooling lotion for tits?’
‘Hey, that was once,’ he rebuffs. ‘And it was all in Japanese on the front.’
‘There was a sticker in both Chinese and English on the back. In case either happened to flee you.’
‘You put me in charge of your face. Let me deal with it, okay?’ She has a hand cupping his face, smearing concealer under his eyes. Nikki frowns, then adds more. They fall silent. She picks up the liner, draws a steady line over his eyelid. A wet flick at the corner of his eye; she’s giving him little wings. He’s watched her do her own make-up enough times to know. He allows himself the pleasure of this: the warmth from her palm pressed against his skin. Even if there can be nothing else beyond it. Remembers, the exchange of bodies between them once upon a time, her voice in the dark, her sweat mingling with his. It’s not something he can want anymore. ‘What are you going to do if you freak out today?’ she asks.
‘I’ll try not to.’
She snorts. ‘You already did this morning,’
‘No more mirrors,’ he tells her.
‘And how’re you going to manage that?’
‘Won’t look. Just tell me if something looks wack.’
The liner pen hovers over the bridge of his nose. She sighs. Alex bought a toaster oven and left her some gift money for her wedding; she’s holding his elbow while he tiptoes past a latent nuclear disaster. He doesn’t deserve her. He tells her as much.
‘Is it worth it?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Wasn’t it, for you?’
‘A-yan and I are actually together.’
He shrugs. It’s not so different, he thinks. Him and Matt, they’ve lived in each other’s pockets since they were eighteen, nineteen, barely adults, rediscovering everything they had been told about what was and wasn’t companionship. Anyway, it’s not about him today. Weddings are rarely about the bride and groom. Today is about Mr and Mrs Kwok, about Ma and Ba, about maintaining appearances, about saving face. We stop thinking in measures of value and worth when it comes to families, Alex wants to say. He’s learnt how to suspend his own needs and desires to keep everything as it should be. ‘It’ll be fine.’
‘You care so little about everything.’
That knife’s edge of accusation, but he’s practiced at holding himself still. It’s been so many years.
One last feather-light stroke of the liner. She starts pencilling in his eyebrows. Replaces the liner with a stick of contour and brings it sharp under his cheekbones, square around his jaw, dipped at the temples, the way he does it when he’s going out for the night to pull. Softer today though. Unnoticeable to anyone who isn’t looking too hard.
‘You’re never going to tell them, are you.’
‘What will come of it?’ Alex asks. He and Ma have only just reached a truce these past few years. It’s so fragile, so new. Breakable. Nikki smears a pale cream rouge onto his cheeks. But when she goes in with a bright red lip liner, he pulls away. There’s the beginning of a wave looming.
‘No lips please,’ he says.
‘It won’t look complete without the lips.’
‘Not that colour,’ he insists.
‘You said no more freak-outs today.’
‘This isn’t.’ But his voice goes thick. He feels it pebble-lodged in his throat. ‘It’s just a request.’
A look long enough that he has to turn away. Then she starts picking through her bag, elbows and hands, sharply moving. ‘Alright. We can go for a darker nude.’ She pulls out another lipstick, handing it to him.
She plugs in the flat iron while he uncaps the lipstick. ‘Bare Kink,’ he reads from the side of the lipstick.
‘Got it for thirty bucks from Sasa,’ Nikki says. The flat iron in his hair, curling it into loose waves.
He swivels around, nearly searing the flat iron across his face. ‘Do I look pretty?’ he says, grinning. She snickers.
There’s a knock at the door, and it opens to reveal Ma and the Dai Kam Jeh, holding his kwun kwa. Ma places a bowl of noodles on his desk. ‘Eat,’ Ma says to Alex. To Nikki, ‘The other girls are here. Why don’t you join them?’ Nikki curls the last bit of his hair, gives Alex a squeeze on the shoulder, and leaves the room.
that meeting we ditched
Streets, buildings, corners are more mystifying at night, the roads narrower and the streetlights taller, and Alex is lost. Humiliatingly, indefensibly lost. He’s been walking this campus for days, but the dark likes to play tricks. Was this hill always so steep? He comes to a standstill next to a tree, catching his breath to dispel the stitch that’s been growing in his side. Glances ahead. There’s a fork in the road that he has no recollection of and a staircase that branches up higher into the hill. No one route seems more or less correct than the others.
His gut instinct tells him nothing, and he scolds himself for not paying attention all week. He’d spent the last few days drifting behind his orientation group in a half-daze, ignored but tolerated like the tag inside the collar of a T-shirt, and revelling in this new freedom. He’s allowed to be perfectly unremarkable now. Nobody bothers the quiet, sullen TB. What is that, he thinks, if not freedom.
But now, he’s still lost. He’s also not sure how to decipher the string of numbers and letters that he’d scribbled onto his hand, information that is meant to tell him the floor he’s supposed to head up to, if he ever finds the building itself. In his mind, he consults a vague outline of a campus map he doesn’t actually remember, but he guesses the Centre is here somewhere, around this corner, up this flight of stairs. All he remembers from the campus tour is the sheer number of steps he had to climb. Everything’s up a flight of stairs on the Island.
He’s halfway up the staircase, sweat beading on his upper lip, when he hears someone ask, ‘You’re going to the GSA meeting?’ There is no one around him, so he turns precariously on the narrow step. A boy stands at the bottom of the stairs, a foot resting two steps up. He begins climbing up, skipping a stair at a time, his hair flopping persistently into his eyes. When he reaches Alex’s step, he asks again, ‘So, that GSA meeting?’
Alex looks at him cautiously. ‘Yeah,’ he says, but his voice trails off into a question.
‘You’re wearing a dude’s polo shirt,’ the boy declares. ‘It’s such a butch green,’ as if that explains anything. Alex looks self-consciously down at his polo. It is green.
‘Butch green?’ he asks and thinks rather viciously that the boy’s burgundy khakis and half-blond dye job aren’t that much better.
‘Yeah.’ The boy shrugs. ‘Matthew.’ He sticks out his hand. Who does that anymore, Alex thinks, reminded of old-timey British men in bowler hats and suits. He takes the hand anyway.
‘Al, um, Alex.’ Matthew lets go, and Alex pulls his hand back. God, he’s sweaty. He shoves his hands into his pocket and tries to look disaffected. He’s not entirely sure what his face is doing. ‘Do you know where the building is?’
Matthew glances up and around. Taps a non-rhythm out with his shiny K-Swiss and scratches an eyebrow. ‘No, but my feet have excellent memory.’
They do find the building, though it takes some time to decode the room number. By the time they figure out which corners to turn, they’re ten minutes late and the meeting’s started. A girl who introduces herself as the President of the association reads off the GSA’s missions and values from a garishly rainbow PowerPoint slide decorated with 3D WordArt. Alex is impressed she can decipher any of the letters at all.
The girl looks around and spots the two of them standing huddled in the corner at the back of the room. Staring straight at Alex, she says, ‘You can be your real selves here,’ and the room turns to stare at them, following her line of sight. He shrinks into the dim light of the corner, feeling preyed upon, and finds himself halfway behind Matthew. Alex curses his butch-green polo. There’s a damp spot forming at the small of his back. His shirt sticks to it. ‘You’re very welcome,’ the GSA President says again. The room feels like it’s getting warmer and warmer. A trickle of sweat runs from behind his right ear.
They dip out five minutes later. ‘Well-intentioned,’ Matthew goes.
‘Sorry. I— just couldn’t.’
‘They’re just trying to do something good, like, trying to connect with us.’
‘I was uncomfortable.’
Matthew falls silent for a long while. ‘I guess so. Well, what now?’
‘You don’t want to hang out?’ Matthew sounds genuinely hurt, or surprised. Alex can’t decide which one it is, or which one is worse.
Neither of them has eaten dinner, so they end up at a noodle spot at the Shek Tong Tsui Market. ‘This place is known for its fish balls,’ Matthew says, smug — he grew up on the Island, he explains — so Alex gets beef brisket. He’s barely two strands into his bowl of noodles when Matthew steals a whole chunk of brisket out of his bowl.
‘Hey!’ Alex says in protest and tries to swat away Matthew’s chopsticks with his own. ‘If you wanted brisket, you should’ve gotten brisket.’
Matthew just scoops a fish ball into Alex’s bowl. ‘These are, like, award-winning.’
‘I don’t care. I don’t want your fish balls.’
Matt chews on the brisket, his whole jaw working up and down. ‘The whole point of eating with someone is so you can try more than one thing.’
‘You eat with someone so you can spend time with them,’ he shoots back, betrayed, and pettishly folds over his bowl of noodles. But the fish balls are pretty good. Alex will own up to that.