Day 9

30 Days Of Art With NAC: In Between by Kirstin Chen

To inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Straits Times, supported by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, has commissioned 30 works by local writers and artists on the pandemic and what it will be like when all this is over

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The child's whimper seeps through the wall in jagged staccato beats.

"I know, Cookie, I know," the mother says. "Oh, Cookie, I know."

The whimper crescendoes to an ear-splitting howl.

"Goddammit," says the father, pounding our shared wall so hard, I jump back, dropping my toothbrush in the sink.

"Goddammit," he says again, softly. "You have to, Cookie. You just have to."

By my count, it's the fourth time they've tried to potty train that kid.

I moved into this apartment a month before lockdown to be closer to the opera house, and then, two weeks later, got laid off. No one knows, not even my parents, who call weekly from Singapore, offering to send masks to San Francisco. Ma's prodding to "think about coming home" would only grow to a demand.

I've yet to really meet the family next door. Once, I passed them in the hallway and the parents nodded briskly, their eyes opaque above matching bandanas, while Cookie waved and hollered, "Hello, will you be my friend?"

In the neighbouring bathroom, the boy wails and wails. I plop myself down on the lid of the toilet to listen. It's quite amazing, really, that something so small can make such a big sound. His stamina is impressive. He's barely taking breaths. I wonder if this kid has extraordinarily large lung capacity, or if it's hardwired into all of them through natural selection. His cry is soaring and bright, with a hint of a whine, a Puccini leading man.

Better have a back-up plan, kid, I think. Unless you actually end up a tenor. Everyone swoons for a tenor, unlike us dime-a-dozen sopranos.

After a while, the howls make my head throb, so I shut the bathroom door behind me, moving stealthily through the apartment like a cat burglar. In my old place, I showed no such restraint. I did my vocalisations in the kitchen while waiting for the kettle to boil, hummed arias in the shower, blasted choral music in the middle of the afternoon. Here, however, I dare not sing along to the stereo. I imagine the child's mother overhearing and thinking, What a pretty voice. In that plain sort of way.

I go back to the bathroom because now I have to pee. The boy is still sobbing. The father says the boy cannot get up until he goes potty and that they will sit there all day if they have to.

But the boy and I both know Dad's caved before.

"Just try," the mother pleads. "Just relax and try." Her voice is a mellifluous, honeyed contralto. "Shhhhhh," she says encouragingly. "Shhhhhh."

"Give it a rest," the father says. His voice is wimpy and nasal.

"What ideas do you have?" she snaps.

The boy's sobs snowball into a full-on screech.

I flush and lather my hands with soap.

The mother says, "No, Cookie, we're not mad at you."

"Oh, we most certainly are."

"What is wrong with you, Abe? You're making it worse."

"I've had enough," the father says.

"He's a baby," says the mother.

"Three and a goddamn half."

The boy cries and cries.

"He's scared," the mother says. "You can't go when you're scared."

I dry my hands. The towel reeks of mildew.

"He should be scared. Nobody wants to be friends with the one kid who still wets his pants."

"Shut it," says the mother. "Just shut it."

"Fine." The father storms away.

The mother says to the boy, "Daddy's impatient, is all."

I bark out a laugh and then cough loudly to cover it up.

At last the mother lets the boy off the toilet. The father returns and sheepishly apologises.

There are kisses and hugs and then yelps and shrieks and curses as the boy, apparently, pees all over the floor.

The father says, "You wretched kid."

The mother says, "Why, Cookie? Why? Why? Why?"

I picture the boy standing there, quaking, exposed, the way I was the day they told me not to come back. I was so ashamed, I rushed out without clearing my cubby, sacrificing old photos tacked to the wall - images of me as a child in full costume, flanked by my beaming parents.

How proud they'd been of my voice until I'd told them the only thing I wanted to do was sing.

Across the wall the father rants and the mother moans, and then the kid lets out a laugh that is high and pure and clean as a rainbow after a deluge, as if to say, "Look at me, here I am."

  • Kirstin Chen, 39, is the author of the novels Bury What We Cannot Take (2018) and Soy Sauce For Beginners (2014). She has been "sheltering in place" in San Francisco, where she is based, since March.
  • To read the other works in this series online, go to str.sg/30Days. To listen to them in a podcast, go to str.sg/JWkr
  • For more local digital arts offerings, visit a-list.sg to appreciate #SGCultureAnywhere
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2020, with the headline 'In Between by Kirstin Chen'. Print Edition | Subscribe