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SEVENTEENTH FLOOR - Shih-Li Kow



Illustration by Giulia Martinelli // www.giuliamartinelli.com


We met when you rang my doorbell and asked for your cat. “I’ve knocked on five doors already looking for him,” you said. “I live in seventeen-two.”

Your cat was in my balcony and I was annoyed. We were on the seventeenth floor. There was no reason for a cat to be in my balcony.

I said, “I hope it didn’t poop in my balcony.”

Maybe you thought my English was funny because you laughed and said, “Oh good. The last time he escaped, I found him in seventeen-five.”

Some people don’t listen. They don’t hear what is said unless there is one word that catches their attention. Maybe you were one of those. I said, “I said, I hope it didn’t shit in my balcony.” I wanted to be rude. If I could, I would have walloped your cat with a slipper just to let off some steam from being stuck in the apartment for so long during the lockdown.

You looked at me, with your face turned slightly to one side, and said, “He won’t. He only goes in his litter box.” You were not bad looking sideways, maybe handsome-when-young. I guessed your age to be about fifty. That made you a few years younger than my father.

We were talking through my security door which has steel bars thick enough for a prison. That door seemed like a good idea at the time since I was renting alone.

Your cat heard your voice and clawed at my balcony glass door, making some high-pitched, horror movie sounds, like ghost-scratching-fingernails-on-mirror kind of sounds. I didn’t want to handle that cat. I had to let you in.

I unlocked my door, removed the key and stepped outside into the corridor, just in case you turned out to be some kind of pervert. I put the key between my fingers, my fist behind my back. Go for the eyes, said the self-defence video.

You walked across my living room and flipped the up-down latch on my balcony door. I made a note in my head to sanitise that door handle. People on Facebook were saying cats spread Covid-19. I didn’t believe it of course, not really, but then people were afraid of catching it from door handles. So, who knew how the virus chose its messengers?

You grabbed your cat and stopped in front of me. You said, “Say thank you to this nice lady, Monty.” You called me a lady. I quite liked that. I was used to being called girl or miss or leng lui back home.

Your cat meowed; pink tongue, eyes like marbles. Aw, cute. Quite an actor, this cat. You said, “Pet him. He’s friendly.”

For a moment, I forgot about the whole pandemic-lockdown business. I put out my hand and your stupid cat, faster than a blink, swiped his paw at me and clawed my thumb.

“Monty!” you said. “He thought you were going to poke his eyes with that key. I’m so sorry. Did he hurt you?” There was a long scratch on my thumb but I shook my head.

You said, “You working from home?” You must have seen my laptop and my files on the dining table.

“Uh, ya. Lockdown, right? Everybody works from home.”

“What do you do?” You sounded exactly like my father’s friends when they asked me the same thing.

“Finance. Credit control.” I pulled the security gate towards me. When it clanged shut loudly enough to send an echo down the corridor, you seemed not to mind. You cuddled Monty and said goodbye.

I had no education in cats. Or dogs. Or any type of pet. My parents were overworked every day in our seafood restaurant back home in Sekinchan; nobody had time for hobbies or pets. My parents sometimes called the restaurant their meng kan, their life vein, and they were stuck to it like a pair of pumping lungs. From Standard One to Form Five, I cleared tables and filled teapots every weekend and every holiday. Even now, if I see a teapot with a lid half open, I have to look away or I will pick it up and look for the water boiler.

Monday to Friday nights were crammed with homework and dingxie memory exercises. If I opened up my brain, there would be Chinese characters stuck like grains of sand in it from all those exercises. When I was old enough not to screw up with a calculator, my father gave me book-keeping duties. He said I had to learn about money. I learnt that money was aplenty out there, only time was short and in Sekinchan, I had no time for anything but work, work, and work. And in college it was study, study, study and back to Sekinchan whenever I could to clear tables, make tea, be whistled at and be called leng lui.

When I graduated and got this job in Kuala Lumpur, I was so happy. Absolutely thrilled is the right way to say it. Hallelujah, alhamdulillah and thank you to all gods. I was in the city with an okay job and my own tiny studio apartment. I finally had my own air to breathe. I loved the days I had to myself: weekends, public holidays, annual leave days.

When I told my colleagues that I had no plans for my weekends, they said I had to get out more. One big mouth actually said he had to ‘teach this kampung amoy how to enjoy life’. This amoy did not need any lessons, thank you very much. I was blissfully enjoying my off days doing nothing more urgent than taking walks, window shopping, and watching videos. Then the pandemic started and being stuck alone in my apartment with a prison door started to feel worse than being too busy.

Anyway, back to Monty. And you. The next day, my cat-scratched thumb started to swell. By the afternoon, my forehead became hot and I took myself to the company clinic. The doctor gave me a tetanus jab. While I waited for my antibiotics, I sank into a mood of self-pity: all alone at the clinic, a fever and a painful hand, a bus ride back to an apartment with plastic furniture, isolated with no boyfriend, no real friends, and no real sex.

I couldn’t go home to Sekinchan because the state borders were closed and I could not cross over to Selangor. Sekinchan felt far away, like across-the-river over-the-mountain kind of faraway, even though it was less than two hours on the bus. I am not crazy about Sekinchan the way some people are about their hometowns. It is not very special: some rice fields and guava orchards, a bit of fishing, and some seafood restaurants. People sit at the jetty to watch the boats come home in the evenings because the beach is too rocky for backsides. I was glad to escape the restaurant that transformed my parents into two dried rice husks at the end of the day but that afternoon at the clinic, I wished for home and salt in the air.

On the bus, I scolded myself for being weak and silly. I had taken care of myself; I had my medicines. I was a tough girl who could curse as good as any of those men who drank too much Black Dog or Tiger beer at the restaurant. I decided to tell you that your fucking cat had sent me to the doctor. I had been majorly inconvenienced. Teew, not just inconvenienced but injured. If I caught Covid-19 from this trip to the clinic and lost my job, it would be because of your sei soi mao that you should have kept indoors. Pets were not allowed in our apartment block; I would threaten to report you to the building management.

I marched to seventeen-two and knocked on your door.

“Oh hello,” you said.

I showed you my thumb which was very impressive, swollen like it was going to lay an egg. I told you about the tetanus injection. You apologised kao-kao. I don’t remember exactly what you said or how you said it but your apology was a cool mist in my angry face. I stopped waving my thumb at you.

You said, “Please, come in. I’ll make you some tea.” Nobody had made me anything for a long time. I decided it was safe to sit in the chair closest to your door and wait for tea as long as the door was unlocked and I sat far away from you. The doctor at the clinic had been friendly and chatty and my mouth, not exercised for a long time, wanted to continue talking.

Your apartment was a Pinterest picture come to life, ten times better than an Ikea catalogue, a hundred times better than my apartment. You had shaggy carpets, cushions like colour bombs, striped blankets on the sofas, and interesting objects on the shelves. One wall was full of books and on another wall, you had a big floor-to-ceiling painting of a windy field with tall yellow grass, so big that the grass was waist-high.

The painting made me think of Sekinchan again. I never loved those hot, flat rice fields back home, not even when they turned into the yellow-brown colour that people pretended was golden and all the photography-crazy tourists came to town. But this painting made me remember the fields differently, like a filter that made yellow-brown become gold.

You kept talking while you poured hot green tea. You offered me nuts and chocolates and rice crackers wrapped in seaweed. You were very clever at asking questions that needed only easy answers from me like:

“I graduated in accounting and I’m going to take my ACCA exams.”

“Yes, I registered for my vaccine but I don’t have an appointment yet.”

We made small talk about the vaccine for a while. But when you said you were a restauranteur, I almost jumped out of my chair. I said, “My parents have a restaurant too. We have a seafood restaurant in Sekinchan.”

When you asked about food in Sekinchan, I recited our restaurant menu like a multiplication table: how we cooked crab (kam heong, chilli, buttermilk, steamed), fish (steamed in ginger or superior soy sauce, fried, sweet and sour), prawns, squid, and mussels. I stopped myself before I started on the vegetables, tofu, and seasonal specials.

Actually, it’s very easy to fall into lust just by talking. It’s just like falling into a manhole without a cover when walking and texting on the handphone. I changed my mind about your handsome-when-younger face. You were probably too skinny when young and I decided that you were handsome-when-older. Some men are like that, except the rough-work men in Sekinchan. Those men, by the time they are thirty-five, have skin like dried cuttlefish, and any good looks have been sucked up by the sun at sea, on the farms or like my father, by the heat of the kitchen. You were no dried cuttlefish of a man.

I forgot about the apartment rule about pets. When you volunteered to pay the doctor’s bill, I said, “My company’s insurance pays for medical but thank you for the offer.” I folded my swollen thumb into my palm and closed my fingers. “And thank you very much for the snacks, Uncle.”

You smiled and said, “No one’s called me uncle for a long time. Call me Ben.” When I put on my shoes to leave, I was pleased, embarrassed, and fluttery at the same time, like a child who had been given a sweet and patted on the head although she was too old for a sweet.

Two days later, you sent me a delivery of food and a note. Inside one box was a piece of pink, grilled salmon on top of spaghetti curled into a nest, a little tub of sauce, salad leaves, and a slice of lemon. The other box had a big slice of blueberry cheesecake. Best of all was the bottle of white wine. The boxes were labelled ‘Monty’s on Ceylon Hill’. The note said: Hope your hand is better. B.

I took photographs of the beautiful food and my Sauvignon Blanc. I Googled how to pronounce sow-vuh-nyon-blahnc. I read and reread the five words on your note, as lovesick as a pre-teen. I admired your handwriting that was so masculine, and the B with the dot that was so intensely personal. When I tried to dig out the bottle cork with a knife, it fell into the wine. I drank the wine, spat out the cork fragments, and made an Excel list of the pros and cons of sleeping with you. By the time the bottle was empty, the pros were all dancing drunkenly with the cons. Let me, Mr. Ben, let me let me be the berry on your cheesecake.

A few days later, you rang my doorbell again. You stood there, smiling and I opened my security gate like taking off my clothes. You wore a blue shirt that made you look younger. I changed my estimation of your age to forty and forty is a damn sexy age for a man. You said you had a favour to ask of me.

“Of course,” I said.

“I have to leave my apartment for two days. Would you mind feeding Monty? I don’t want to send him to a pet hotel because he gets stressed out.”

“No problem.”

“Thank you. He just needs his food and fresh water. The litter box is by the bathroom, in case it needs to be cleaned out. I’ll leave everything you need on the kitchen table.”

“My pleasure.” I had been watching British drama serials. All the non-stop talking put me to sleep but they were good for my vocabulary and this kind of polite talk. I had learnt how to say it was my pleasure to clean your cat's litter box. All the Chinese characters in my brain were turning into English words that hatch and swim around like tadpoles with tails. Swim-ming, feed-ing, talk-ing.

You said, “This is my key. Please drop it in my mailbox on Thursday evening so that I can pick it up when I’m back. I’m going to be very late on Thursday.”

“Sure, don’t worry about it.”

For two days, I fed your cat. I also sat on your sofas, hugged your plump cushions, curled my toes in your carpets and practised swear words on Monty. I read the titles of your books, inspected things on your shelves, opened your kitchen cabinets and audited the refrigerator to see what you ate. I looked in your wardrobe and lay on your bed with one of your shirts on my face, fantasizing about A to Z until Monty jumped up and scared the shit out of me before I got to Z. Your cat sure as hell knew how to pour cold water. I did all that before I noticed the CCTV cameras but I told myself that nobody looked at CCTV recordings anyway unless something was stolen.

After Thursday I waited for another bottle of wine to appear as thanks for taking care of the cat but nothing came. I decided to write you a note. After all, this started with your note. I wrote: Dear Ben, How are you and Monty? I hope you are well and staying safe. Take good care. Call me if you need anything. Your neighbour from 17-7, L. That took me two hours to write and I stapled my business card to it because we had not exchanged telephone numbers before. I pushed it under your door and waited.

The lockdown ended and I did not hear from you. I did not see you in the corridor or the lift but I could not bring myself to knock on your door. That would have been too cheap and I was too young to be desperate.

I found the address of your restaurant and went to Ceylon Hill with an idea of walking in and saying “Hi Ben, oh, I was just passing by” as though I had come in with the wind. But I did not because your restaurant signage was carved out in a thin, gold font that was as elegant as a piece of jewellery and mounted on a wall of climbing leaves with purple flowers. That ‘Monty’s’ signage alone made me feel like a kampung water buffalo. So, I left.

I went back to work in the office. When I came back in the evenings, I would look up to see if your light was on but standing on the street, it was hard to count up to the seventeenth floor. Every window and balcony on the building looked the same and my neck would hurt from looking up. Sometimes a heavy, disappointing feeling of being surrounded by masked and serious strangers walking and living around me made me hurry upstairs.

Some weeks after I had left the note, I received two messages on my telephone. One informed me that you had died. The date of the funeral was two weeks past.

The second message: FYI. From Ben’s wife.

Dead. Weeks ago. A wife. Between you appearing in that blue shirt at my door and someone picking up my note from your floor, you had taken your last breath. Passed away. Gone. I texted back: I am very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Ben. My heartfelt condolences. I did not know.

And: What happened to Monty?

No reply. Maybe your wife had looked at the CCTV recording and seen a crazy girl sniffing her husband’s clothes and pillows. Or worse, maybe you yourself had seen me on the cameras but you were dead now. I suppose it should not matter.

I went to ask the building management office about you. They were the only people I knew who had known you. A woman at the office said, “He was taken away by an ambulance one night. Our security guard reported it.”

“Did he have a wife?”

“I don’t know. He lived alone and I used to arrange the cleaners for him but I don’t know if he was married.”

I wanted to ask her if she had been inside your apartment before. I wanted to ask this pretty woman who arranged your cleaning for you if she had slept with you. I wanted to know if she had met you more than three times, spent more hours with you than I had. It was a pointless, crazy jealousy.

I said, “Who called the ambulance?”

She gave me a funny look, “I don’t know. Why are you asking? Does it matter?”

I had no reply. I went to bed in a kind of misery that could not be satisfied because I could not cry. The feeling refused to turn to tears; it stayed like a stone on my chest. Who was I to cry? I had only met you three times, any feeling I imagined was nothing but a childish daydream made from loneliness. When I sent my condolences to your wife, I was nothing to her but an initial on a piece of paper. She was nobody to me except an idea of a wife and a telephone number. ‘Heartfelt’ on a text message was an empty word with no meaning.

I took the bus home to Sekinchan. I went straight to my parents’ restaurant and put my bag down behind the cashier counter. Within ten minutes, a customer whistled, “Leng lui, bring the bill.” My father told me to take the car out and buy ice. The tourists were starting to come back after the interstate travel ban was lifted.

When we were home that night, my father asked, “How are you coping with your job?”

I said, “No problem. Everything is fine.” He wasn’t really listening; I had not said any unexpected word that cut through his tiredness. He was already counting the hours to the morning when he had a delivery of live fish coming in.

My mother wanted to know what I ate. I told her what I cooked for myself in the apartment, where I bought my groceries, the prices of things, how much money I spent, how long it took me to get to work, and that people were friendly in the office. I wanted to tell her about you, tell it like a story I heard from somebody about a friend, but I could not find a way to start and there was little to tell anyway. Only that a man who lived on my floor had died.

I said to my mother, “Please come visit me. Come stay for three days.” We can go shopping, I said, get a foot massage. I wanted to take her to a dim sum restaurant where someone would take our order and fill our teapots. My father was nodding off in his chair. They seemed so delicate, the two of them. So easily breakable in this small place.

She said what she always liked to say, “If I manage to find the time, I’ll go.” I wished she had not said it like that. I wished she had just said yes.

Shih-Li Kow lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her short story collection Ripples and Other Stories (2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second book The Sum of Our Follies (2014), was translated into Italian and French. The French edition (tr. Frederic Grellier) won the 2018 Prix du Premier Roman Etranger. Her writing has been published in many anthologies and most recently in Mekong Review, The Arkansas International, and ESP Culture.