A collection of writing by Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson
“Island Nation” published on Writers’ Billboard
December 10, 2008Posted by on
“Island Nation” is the winner of this month’s Writers Billboard short story contest. Here is the story in its entirety.
When Stephen got home that night he found Daisy passed out on the antique couch. The living room was littered with another Arab Street haul. Colorful paper bags from mall fashion outlets and street vendors speckled the condo floor. Daisy had unwound a swath of pink bejeweled silk; it ran between the front door to the far wall and window.
Stephen wondered how Daisy managed to get all of it home. He imagined a moving truck following her down Singapore’s streets, gathering a payload of silks, scarves, and soaps.
“I’m home,” Stephen said, closing the front door and setting his briefcase there by the door. He was not quite handsome, but always presentable. Always clad in a nice suit and capable of tying a Windsor that didn’t loosen up over the day. He could play the part of banker.
Daisy stirred awake. Her Prada top bunched up, showing her midriff. Her beauty still startled him, especially when she was least aware of it: sleeping or cooking or too drunk on apple martinis to notice. They had been married a year, following a blitzkrieg courtship.
“How was your day?” Daisy yawned.
“Interesting,” Stephen said, picking his way across the living room to kiss her. Her mouth was warm and tasted of mottled gin. He noted the empty hi-ball glass beside the couch, its melted-ice remains.
“What was interesting about it?” she said, looking right at him. Stephen thought her turpentine eyes and white blond complexion were unique to Singapore, making her the most singular beauty in the small island nation. He allowed the beauty to distract him from the question, and she didn’t ask again.
He looked out the window. It had begun to grow dark. Already he could see the fingers of light that reached up to the 28th floor each night. The convention center big screen reflected off the ivory monument to the civilian dead of the Japanese occupation. The lights were an unforeseen drawback of the condo’s prime location, one Stephen could never have anticipated the day he viewed it (after all, he only saw it in daylight).
“Get anything good?” Stephen said, weaving through the purchases toward the kitchen. He did not mean to sound judgmental, and wasn’t. He could afford it. The occasional spree was the price of her happiness. A commodities-future trader, he was still raking in the money faster than she could spend it. Or so it had seemed when he left for the bank that morning.
“It was a Taka day.” Daisy moved to get up, to give him the tour of her newly-had possessions. He stood in the kitchen door, holding a glass of water, watching her.
“Hundreds of malls in this city and you keep going back to that one.”
“You’re hilarious,” she said, waving him off. “Look at this.” She peeled off her top and slid her skirt down about her ankles. Stephen watched her with held breath as she picked up the swath of silk and wrapped it around her. While she managed to hide her near-nakedness, she couldn’t obscure the sensual lines of her hips and waist. She had become his embassy in this strange place. He needed this power of hers now more than ever.
“You are so stunning,” he said.
“I’m going to get it tailored tomorrow,” she said, smiling as she looked down at the way the silk wrapped around her body. “I would have done it today but I got tired.”
“I wish you had it already,” he said. “I’m taking you out tonight.”
“Anywhere you want.”
“Indian and then drinks on the quay?”
Stephen set down his glass and walked to her, held her. He felt the silk fall to the ground. His hands absorbed the cool of her back.
“What should I wear?” Her voice was soft and close to his ear.
“I like this outfit,” he said, speaking into her fragrant hair.
“Watch yourself!” she said, peeling away from him. “I just may go out like this.”
“How far do you think you’d last before they arrested us both?” Stephen said.
“You they’d get in thirty seconds.” She turned her back on him and started toward the bedroom. “I’m sure they know about all the laws you’ve been breaking.”
Stephen slumped back on the couch, listening to the sound of her in their bedroom: the closet opening, the sliding of hangers as she sifted through her options. A lovers’ joke. He knew exactly what laws she was talking about: those prohibiting certain sex acts, the kind of bedroom legislation built into the Singapore penal code. She wasn’t talking about securities law.
“Are you going to change or just wear the same suit you wore to work?” she shouted from the bedroom.
“I like this suit,” he shouted back.
“Me too. I just want to make sure I match.”
He got up and went to the kitchen. Daisy had left the gin out on the counter. He poured two glasses and brought them to the bedroom. She looked up at him as she began to zip herself into a little black number that he particularly liked. He felt a tickle of relief at the angle of her body as she reached back for the difficult zipper. He had this at least.
She went to the mirror. After some minor adjustment she nodded to herself. She left the mirror and accepted the drink.
“I realized something today,” she said, leading him back to the living room and resuming her reclined place on the couch.
“What was that?”
She took a long drink.
“I think I need to find somewhere I can volunteer. Riding for the Disabled or Habitat or something.”
“Well, I appreciate how patient you’ve been with my shopping. But we both know what this is really all about.”
“We do?” Stephen knew but that didn’t mean he needed to say so. She was here for him, and couldn’t bear the place.
“You silly.” She shoved him playfully, nearly upending his drink. “I’m just lonely, that’s all. I don’t know anyone except you.”
He was about to remind her of the other expat wives she’d met via his work. She had deplored them and all that they represented: yoga at 10:00 am, addictive emailing, excessive talk of philanthropic exploits. But Stephen held his tongue, this time not in deference to Daisy’s dislikes. If his news got out he couldn’t say that any of those women would be willing to help his beautiful wife (who they all probably envied). Stephen went back to concentrating on Daisy.
“I want you to be happy here,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, darling. I love being here with you. But…”
“But you need your own life,” he said. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“I thought I liked you.” She set down her glass, which had somehow gone empty, and accosted him. Stephen managed to forget what was eating him. Instead he marveled at this woman in his arms and how lucky he had been to have found her. They came from similar families: well-to-do, well-educated, well-liked, well-established in their American east coast hometowns. They had met by chance, waiting for a Manhattan crosswalk to change; he had asked her the time and she had seen it for a line, and soon they were off to drinks and dinner and a date that would not end, not for six days straight. During that blissful blitz of laughter and reconstructing their congruent childhoods they both grew certain of their future together. The proposal had come easily, the families intermingling with ease. Her father was an insurance executive; his was a stockbroker. Both husband and wife had a shared understanding of what it meant to have such a breadwinner in the fold. Their serendipity had led them to Singapore, seeking fortune.
“I’m hungry,” she said, climbing off of him and pulling him up by the hand. “Should we make a booking at Song of India?”
During the cab ride, left again to his thoughts and to the sobering effect of the air conditioner, Stephen felt a growing dread. The conversation that day with the bank’s vice-chairman ricocheted about his head.
Riskier than we’d realized.
Bank’s future in jeopardy.
Freezing all trades until we get this cleared up.
Need to take corrective action in the next 24 hours.
It may already be too late.
Did you have any idea?
The answer to the last question was yes and no. There were emails, phone calls, disparate conversations that could be pieced together, sufficient to point a finger. What had seemed an innocent arbitrage might be something more. If they looked in the right places they would find where his own guilt resided. The prospect of discovery threatened to tear him away from this gorgeous creature now holding his hand.
At dinner, Daisy ordered more than they could reasonably eat. They picked from four exquisite dishes with affluent disregard for waste. It was one of the things Stephen liked about Daisy. So many of his contemporaries growing up were haunted by rich guilt, as though they would unmake who they were by feeling bad about it. Daisy had no such pretension.
What worried him, though—what he had to know tonight, once he built up the courage—was whether her affection for him was as boundless as he hoped.
He resolved to tell her over dessert about what had transpired.
When dessert came and went, he revised his deadline. Maybe over their nightcap.
He got the check and paid and again they were in a cab.
“Palais Renaissance,” Stephen said.
“Late night shopping, lah?”
They wound their way down Scotts Road and turned left onto Orchard Road. Daisy looked out the window with a slight smile as they passed Takashimaya, her favorite mall. “Taka’s” orange letters seemed to taunt Stephen, marking the resting place of many an ill-earned dollar. He looked instead to the sidewalks, crowded with urbanity. He noted a cab stand and the polite queue piled behind it as Singaporeans waited their turn.
“I heard today,” Daisy said, squeezing his hand, “that when they were first settling Singapore there was a tiger attack on average once a day. Isn’t that crazy?”
“It’s not New York, is it?” he said. Although in some senses it was New York, as western as any eastern city. He spoke English at work and it was the rare day when he felt even a moment of disorientation. The strict laws had never really bothered him, as they seemed to impose an order that squashed the Asian out of the place and left only capitalism: sterile, precise, and opportunistic. If not for the humidity he might have been back home. It was only when they left Singapore to travel that he felt himself in Asia, and that was vacation and not everyday life.
“I’ve never seen a tiger in this city!” Daisy said, laughing.
The talk of tigers again got him thinking of work. A small voice screamed out to him that he had better tell her soon. Better to be careful lest his life here be snatched away and carried off into the jungle.
“Singapore so wishes it was New York,” she said, laughing.
“We could always leave here,” he said, seeing a chance to back into the conversation.
“Right,” she said. She folded her arms and leaned on the door. “You are making way too much money here for us to leave.”
“You never know,” he said. “It can’t all last forever.”
“Whatever,” she said. “You like making it too much to stop.”
Stephen wasn’t sure what he was about as he took Daisy’s hand, helping her out of the cab, and led her inside Palais. Despite the blast of air conditioning, Stephen felt no comfort: he was deadset on a destination.
“What’s the hurry?”
“I want to get something for you,” he said.
The jewelry shop was not exclusive to Singapore (locations in New York, London, Tokyo). Stephen liked the place because he could be sure to find something that matched Daisy’s taste. Daisy laughed as he hauled her inside.
“You are on a mission!”
“We want something,” Stephen said. A well-manicured Chinese man in a black suit stood behind an elbow-height glass display counter. “Something for my beautiful wife.”
“Very pretty wife!” said the man. “If we lucky we find jewelry almost as pretty.”
He beckoned toward the glass case. Daisy leaned over it, not bothering to hide her smile. She wasn’t sure what was going on—if he wasn’t already her husband, she would swear Stephen was angling to propose—but she liked the attention.
The case contained antique necklaces and earrings, most of them set in silver. Daisy’s eyes went immediately to a simple silver chain hung with the biggest diamond she’d ever seen. Stephen noticed her holding her breath, her eyes locked on this singular piece. Before Daisy could breathe again he’d pointed to it and the man had pulled it from the case and handed it to Stephen, who unclasped the chain and secured it around Daisy’s delicate neck. He watched her forehead crinkle as she concentrated on what he was doing to her. Then her forehead smoothed. She turned toward the mirror and rolled her shoulders from side to side, taking it in from every angle.
“You look perfect,” he said, kissing her bare neck just above the chain. She smiled, still shocked over the pace of the transaction. She looked at him, breathless and confused. He had lavished her with gifts before but this…
It wasn’t until the man had swiped Stephen’s credit card and they were awaiting the confirmation from the bank that he recalled what he was about and why he was compulsively purchasing the biggest gemstone he could find. He swallowed hard. The longer he waited, the further the evening slipped away.
Stephen led her back the way they’d come and out into the sweltering night. They hailed a cab. Daisy touched one hand to the new necklace; with the other she put her hand on his. Again, Stephen struggled with what to say. He had nearly screwed up the courage to just blurt it out when they arrived at their destination, at the west end of Pagoda Street, at the mouth of the Chinatown Night Market.
Lanterns cast reddened hues. They walked, hand in hand, into the nightly throng of would-be buyers and local vendors peddling knickknacks and hand-carved children’s toys. The booths constricted the street; foot traffic could only limp along. The smells of the place were most evident—simmering poultry and basted seafood—and rose above the other sensual assaults: the shoulder-jostling of passersby, the obscene negotiations of Australian tourists, the pandering of shop-owners whose storefronts went untended, the humidity overlaying every movement, the shy winks of old women who seemed to recognize Stephen as one of the lucky ones, blessed by an abundance of beauty at his arm.
“Keep your eyes out,” Stephen said, “for something you really want.”
“Oh yeah?” Daisy feigned surprise, tilting her head and wandering her eyes across the market with all its possibilities. She touched her hand to the diamond at her sternum. “I thought you’d just gotten me something.”
“It’s a special night,” Stephen said, wishing he hadn’t. The walls of the corner he’d backed his way into kept growing higher, the angle of that corner more accute. What would it all mean when he told her he might be fired? For trading vaporous futures on the Singapore Exchange. For hiding his losses in accounts that had yet to be discovered but would be. What would she think of him when she saw that this night, like his whole career, was not quite as it seemed?
“Where’d you go off to, loverboy?” Her tone was light but when Stephen looked at her he saw the crease in her forehead, a band of worry that didn’t fit her splendor. She saw through him, almost to the truth. He had to do something soon.
Just before the market made a dogleg and turned onto Trengganu Street, Stephen spotted something hopeful. Just beyond the row of vendors he saw light reflecting off polished wood in a windowed storefront. He swung Daisy around by the arm and into the store, where a short Chinese woman was closing up shop. As they entered she scowled. Stephen thought she was about to shoo them out. Then, recognizing the affluence of their dress, the scowl became a smile.
“I closing,” she said. “You buy I stay open, lah.”
“Do you deliver?” Stephen said.
“Morning delivery, lah.”
He looked at his wife, who still stood in the doorway, one hand braced against the doorjamb. She was neither in nor out. He felt a flash of panic, seeing her there in one of her moments of unintended beauty, the angle of her arm and body set against the lantern-lit market. He wondered if, were he to tell her everything, she would flee the country with him. Right then. To Maldives or some other island without extradition. Leave it all behind and live off of his (not meager) savings.
He might have gone through with it, might have enacted his exit, but at that moment she was again by his side. Her light touch on his back was enough to propel him into purchasing an ornate antique loveseat that supposedly had once graced the bottoms of Chinese royalty.
They left the shop, the woman bowing in appreciation before locking the door behind them. Stephen forced a laugh: what else do you do after spending four figures on furniture? Daisy looked at him, again puzzled, before laughing herself. Stephen was ashamed at the dissonance in the two laughs.
“How about we walk up to the quay for a nightcap?” he said.
“I’d just as soon take you home,” Daisy said, playing with the jewel that hung about her neck.
“We’ll make it quick,” Stephen said.
There was no doubt where they would go. Stephen had become a regular at Harry’s, and the bartenders knew him for what he was: a pleasant fellow who only occasionally got drunk and who always tipped well and sometimes bought rounds for the entire house.
The host led them to a well-fanned table in back. Daisy ordered a Tiger for him and a Singapore Sling for her. She absent-mindedly fanned herself with her hand as she surveyed the bar, which was crowded with Anglos, many still in their work clothes: loosened ties and sweat-damp sport coats.
Once they had their drinks, Daisy turned her full attention to Stephen.
“So what the hell is going on tonight? Where are you? When you came home you said your day was interesting. What happened?”
She wasn’t mad. Yet. Stephen could sense the skepticism—which she wore unnaturally—in her posture. Too rigid, bent too far toward him.
He wet his lips. It was the obvious opening. All he had to do was say it. Start talking and it would all fall out of his mouth, everything he’d held back these last few months as one lie became two, five, a hundred. Even if he had just ordered new furniture, it was not too late for them to leave the island. Even if he was fired tomorrow, it was not too late to tell her the truth.
“I…I came home and saw you asleep today and it was…I started thinking about what it would be like if I lost you…I guess I just got carried away.”
He knew about the sincerity registering in his eyes; he could see it reflected in Daisy’s softening expression. She shook her head, leaned across the table, and kissed him on the forehead.
“You idiot. You don’t have to spend all that money on me to show me you love me. You could never lose me. Not if you tried.”
Utterly defeated, Stephen finished his beer, ordered another, finished it quickly, and bought a final round for the rest of the bar. Then they were off again, her arm in his, walking on the wide promontory as the Singapore River slid by. She leaned into him, her eyes only partially open, ignoring the modern skyline and the cast-iron sculptures that decorated the walk. For this was all familiar now. Home for the first time.
“This place not so bad, lah,” Daisy said, laughing at her own faux Singlish.
When they had crossed the river and reached the condo and sized up where the new loveseat would go, it was with a sense of homecoming that Daisy had never before felt in this place, this city still thousands of miles from anything she knew. She pulled Stephen to bed and they exchanged whispers until sleep overtook them.
Stephen had enough of a hangover the next morning to compound his sense of guilt. He considered waking Daisy and telling her then but he could not interrupt the moment, for it was clear from her contented smile that Daisy’s evening was still alive in her dreams. He vowed to tell her if she woke before he left. He shaved and showered. He put on the suit that made him feel the most invincible (the gunmetal gray pinstripes). Still she hadn’t woken. So he went off to work without disturbing her, catching a cab at the corner.
His office provided a stellar view: south, beyond the port and its countless containers stacked three- and five-high, each no bigger than playthings when viewed from his vantage. It had been hazy all week but today it was clear so that he could see out to sea, to the multitude of container ships waiting to enter the port.
He did not even hear them come in until someone cleared his throat. Stephen turned round. It was the vice-chairman.
“Carl,” Stephen said, standing with his usual decorum to shake the hand of the tall, steel-jowled German who had been the one to recruit him to the bank in the first place. But Carl did not shake hands, nor was he alone. The two bank security officers bore a severity that was unmistakably focused on Stephen. Suddenly he felt very foolish for even coming in this morning.
“We don’t know everything yet,” Carl said. “But we know enough.”
Stephen’s mouth dropped open.
“Why…what on earth do you mean?” He felt the same sincerity well up.
“The evidence is irrefutable. We have the electronic records. Your name is all over them.”
“But I don’t know what you mean! I-”
“We’re sorry, Stephen,” Carl said. “Everybody likes you and Daisy.”
He saw the security guards coming for him. He didn’t think much after that, he just did.
He picked up the chair he’d so recently occupied and flung it toward the window. The chair suspended in the air momentarily and Stephen could see the wheels and noticed they weren’t spinning. Then it collided with the window. Now there was a spiderweb of cracks.
Stephen sensed the guards reaching for him from across the desk. He stepped up on the air conditioning unit and flung himself at the center of the web. He felt the glass give way, the first hint of falling. Then his neck whipped forward as his momentum inverted, as he jerked back into the office, stopped short as hands gripped his suit jacket and pulled him inside. The guards were not delicate, allowing his legs to drag behind him as they hauled him backwards toward the office door. At first all he could see was the spiral-cracked window, the upended chair with its wheels still spinning. Then he saw beyond the office that was no longer his, to Daisy as she might be at that moment, sitting on their newly-delivered loveseat, still in her morning pajamas as she fondled the diamond around her neck, thinking fondly of him. He wished that she might stay that way.