Off-kilter

Here’s one of my poor attempts at short story writing; here it goes:

I woke up with a start. Gosh, I hope I’ve not called out her name in my sleep. I was breaking out in cold sweat. I quickly turned and looked at my wife Celeste. She was not there. It was then when I realized I wasn’t in my cozy, warm bed at our home in Sydney.

I was sleeping on a park bench this cold wintry morning. I staggered to the public toilet; 15, 20 steps away, knowing that sleep would escape me if I tried to return to it. It was 4:00am. There was a slight breeze. I caught a whiff of the left-over French fries abandoned by some teenagers last night. Must remember to check these fries out, see if they’re still salvageable. If they haven’t turned sour, I could have them for breakfast, before the crows – or the garbage men – get to them. As I wobbled towards the toilet I looked back at my worldly possessions just to make sure they’re going be safe. One old, dirty duffel, that’s all I have now.

The spring of 1993 was when my affair with Gillian started. It was a torrid relationship. Today, years later, I still re-live bits and flashbacks of it occasionally.

I’m not one of those chronic or serial womanizers. Sure, as a private banker, in the course of entertaining my clients, I’ve had my share of fun with occasional flings and trysts with hostesses at Asian nightclubs, “masseuses” at “health centers” and lap dancers at King’s Cross. But these were purely commercial transactions involving women whose profession it was to tease men to the height of elevated sexual tension and then hurriedly, emotionlessly, release that tension for a fee; anonymous women whose names and faces I would forget the moment I stepped out of those places, people I do not emote about. Sure I’ve dipped into the candy jar occasionally but never for the life of me would I imagine that I’d have an affair one day.

But it happened.

I was 36, a successful private banker with Merrill Lynch. Made my first million at 29. Life was good – no, make that “great” – life was great. I was on a roll. It was at a cocktail party on board a yacht in Hong Kong when I met Gillian, a Shanghainese girl born in Taiwan and educated in the States. Almost immediately, we took to each other like fish to water. It was one of those things you read about or see in the movies: a grand entrance, the gaze across the room, the instantaneous connection as time stood still; oh how I hated that word but we “clicked.” We declared eternal love for each other.

I was married at that time and Celeste was soon to give birth to our third child. But Gillian made me feel young and in love all over again. She was 17 years my junior. Earlier in her teens, she was shopping along Tsim Sha Tsui on a holiday in Hong Kong when she was talent-spotted to appear in a music video. One thing led to another and she started acting in movies. That became her life. She claimed to have experienced very little of what constitutes bona fide friendships. I was a non-descript guy who came along – not dashing, definitely not a hunk like her suave, handsome leading men – but I showed (according to her, at least) maturity, gentleness, sincerity and the ability to demonstrate genuine care and concern. While almost every male she met would be consumed with one and only one objective of trying to bed her, here was one seemingly harmless guy who was just being himself and sort of hung around and genuinely cared for her as a person.

I didn’t start out to have an affair but be honest, at that time I figured if there was a woman who was willing and available, why not? It was so tempting to cheat a little. Then pull the plug. A quick bite of the illicit fruit, after all, didn’t they say it’s the forbidden fruits that taste the sweetest? “Take it easy,” I told myself. “This is a no-brainer. Just for fun only, don’t get burned, stay on top of things, don’t de-rail, and don’t fall in love, yadda yadda yadda.” After all, what is a man supposed to do? Spit it out when a slice of succulent, juicy, well marbled Wagyu beef is forced into your mouth? Of course I was rationalizing. So I threw caution to the winds whenever I was with Gillian. When we were together, my mind would switch off as far as my wife and kids were concerned. It was as if they never existed. I was single again, for all you know. My job required me to travel, and it was perfect, as it enabled Gillian and me to spend lots of time together.

With Gillian, I experienced great sex. I was told that adulterous affairs are always about sex, that in affairs, sex is always full of sound and fury and very very fierce and intense. Indeed, sex dominated our relationship. I soon realized I couldn’t just have a short fling and then “re-boot” to normalcy, no, not anymore, plus, I didn’t really want to, anyway. There were times when there was just nothing to talk about. Intellectually, we never connected. All interactions were sexual and physical in nature. I was 36 and she was 19. She was a teenager for Pete’s sake. Our relationship was fueled by the very “illicitness” of the whole idea, the “wrongness” of it all made it so very thrilling and breathtaking in a most perverted sense.

I now realize that Gillian brought out the worst in me, she made normal what would have been aberrant. We carried out every sexual act we’ve ever fantasized about ever since we were sexually aware. Gillian was a most willing – and highly sexed – experimenter; and very often an initiator. There was nothing we wouldn’t do; we tried every sexual position you could imagine you would have thought we wrote the Kama Sutra! Oh and we did it every where: groping during a movie, sex on the office desk (it happened one weekend, and someone actually stumbled upon us), sex in the swimming pool, sex on the kitchen floor, sex standing up, squatting down, sex every which way. We were both addicted to sizzling sex with each other; addicted in a way I never knew any human being could be.

When we could not be together I missed her dearly, or should I say I missed the phenomenal sex. Never mind if in the end I had degenerated into yet another one of those lecherous men in the entertainment industry whom she was wary of; yes I became no different from the other men in her life whose one overwhelming passion was to conquer and ravage her. Gillian was after all a gorgeous “babe” by any definition.

When I visited her filming venues, we would sneak into her trailer where she would go down on her knees, and did things to me in ways which only she knew how, until I could hardly stand on my feet from the jerky convulsions that would rock my spent body. The frenetic tearing off and putting back on of clothes, the panting and grasping and quick groans, the whisperings over the phone when we were not together…soon my beautiful wife, Celeste, became, in my mind, such an unattractive, plain and unappealing person. Not wanting to be found derelict as a husband, whenever I was back in Sydney, I would carry out the “obligatory love making” with her while pretending that it was actually Gillian I was making love to. Other times, to avoid physical intimacy with my wife, I would pretend to be asleep or claimed that I was not in the mood or had a headache or was unwell. Imagine a man pretending to have a headache!

As much as the sex was terrific and the companionship fun, my relationship with Gillian slowly grew into a high-stress, high-maintenance one. I would plan my business trips to coincide with Gillian’s filming and performance schedules and Gillian would spend whatever time she had with me. We were in Bali, Bangkok, London, Tokyo, Aspen, Bhutan, Monte Carlo, the Maldives, Paris, New York, Malta, Seoul, Budapest, Taipei and all sorts of other places, traipsing round the world together. In year four, I started to feel that I needed space; I felt that Gillian was crowding into every nook and cranny of my life.

When she wasn’t with me, there would be countless telephone calls during the day and still more at night. Once at a shareholders’ meeting in London, cans of Red Bull were suddenly delivered to the meeting room, courtesy of Gillian. I supposed I was expected to feel grateful; sure I appreciated the gesture but instead of feeling delighted I considered it an intrusion. You see, Gillian would do things like that. Whenever she wasn’t with me physically she’d make sure she was never really away from me. All I had to do was to merely mention something, and she would spring to action. During a phone conversation, I remarked that the temperature had suddenly dipped in Beijing and the next day a cashmere cardigan arrived via DHL. Some people would be glad when things like that happen but for me, all I felt was annoyance. Gillian became overbearing. For what felt like a thousand years now, I’ve not had a single opportunity to be really alone; to sit myself down and have a coffee or window shop or just stroll along the streets all by myself. Gillian was always there like a shadow I couldn’t shake off and I started to really resent it. How I wish I could visit Rockpool alone and have a chat with my friend Neil Perry the chef, like the good old days.

To make it worse, occasional pangs of guilt would tug at me. It was especially difficult when my eldest child, Terence was diagnosed with leukemia and had to undergo painful treatment for which I was not around to accompany him much. Above all, it was the fear of being discovered that was the most overpowering emotion. I lived in fear; fear that I would be found out one day – already we have bumped into friends, acquaintances and relatives – surely it would only be a matter of time before my wife knows about Gillian and me.

I was living a lie, walking on thin ice, like that time in high school when I went on a school trip to Paris and got mugged and lost my camera and was afraid I had nothing to show for my trip so I passed off photographs taken during an earlier trip to Genting Highlands as my Paris photographs. How could I get away with that? What was I thinking?

I finally decided to put a stop to it but to say that Gillian took it very badly was an understatement. She threatened suicide. At one point she even cut herself. I winced when she showed me the slash marks. I was scared shitless, I didn’t want blood on my hands. But did I really want to get rid of her? In reality, my trying to break up the relationship was a half-ass attempt. I was not firm enough, not exactly willing to give up the sex or such a willing sex partner and playmate. At that time, in my heart of hearts, I wasn’t really serious about seeing such a luscious, never-ending buffet spread coming to an end. In future, would there be someone else as easy and as readily available as Gillian? Each time we “broke off” we would reconcile, to be followed by even more sweltering, unparalleled and still more frenzied “make-up” sex, the best kind of sex, they say. This went on and on and on, it was a vicious cycle. I was trapped.

In retrospect, Gillian encouraged my every excess and nurtured my every whim and fancy – I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect she humored me so that she could hang on to me or to put me in her pocket forever. It was a subtle way for her to be in control. My wife would tell me to watch what I eat but Gillian would not. Celeste would sometimes reproach me whenever I commit some social faux pas, but in Gillian’s eyes I could do no wrong.

Gillian also made it extremely easy for me to carry on with her. In all fairness; she never demanded money or gifts. She said she wanted only my time. I tried several more times to shake her off but I was never successful. I then tried a cowardly approach – when I was with Gillian I would start to talk about other girls. I would give the impression that she was no longer the only woman I was fooling around with. That too didn’t work. Gillian either didn’t believe me or was rather willing to put up with my philandering. Eventually, I resorted to telling her that from now on colleagues would be accompanying me on most of my trips, that it would no longer be possible for her to tag along all the time. That kept her at bay at last.

Having reduced face time with Gillian, I now lived with yet another fear, the fear that Gillian would tell my wife or my boss about my indiscretion if she suspected that I was trying to terminate our dalliances. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Believe you me; it was no joke living like Damocles, the courtier from ancient Syracuse who was seated at a banquet beneath a sword suspended by a single hair. During those times when I was able to keep Gillian away, when we were finally spending less and less time together, each time the phone rang for my wife or a letter was delivered to her, I was on edge. It could be Gillian deciding to spill the beans the moment she sensed that I was trying to “dump” her. Will she become like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction?

Long after it was over, the harmful effects of an affair continue to rear their ugly heads with unceasing frequency. And in ways I would never have expected. In my travels, alone in a hotel room, I would become antsy and sexually aroused, because for the past few years, I have never slept alone in a hotel room; Gillian would be with me most of the time. Hotel rooms were associated with magnificent, scorching sex with Gillian. I would become hot and bothered just checking into a hotel. Feeling lonely, there were numerous occasions when I wanted to pick up the phone to contact her knowing that she would immediately fly to wherever I was to be with me. Even phone sex would be satisfying. Feeling lonely, dining in some restaurant in some foreign country, I wished Gillian would be there. Feeling lonely, lying in bed at night in some hotel room somewhere, I wished I could reach out and touch Gillian. Whenever I was home in Sydney I would wish for Gillian to be next to me in bed, instead of Celeste. I still dream terrifying dreams in which I pine for and crave for Gillian with an aching heart. I once woke up to find tears streaming down my cheeks, my pillow soaked. What a basket case I’ve become.

My marriage was affected. People who have affairs say that they “compartmentalize” but it is a myth. It was impossible not to compare my wife with Gillian or to try not to “Gillian-rize” my wife. Don’t get me wrong, Celeste was no prude and in the early days of our marriage we enjoyed a wonderful sex life, didn’t we have three children to show for it? But we were married for over ten years and Gillian was like a breath of fresh air. Moreover, she was much more physical and demonstrative, very “touchy” at every opportunity, forever stroking and caressing me, she would go to bed in my arms, hugging me like her whole life depended on it whereas Celeste could turn on her side and go into a fetus position, with her back facing me. By comparison, sex with Celeste was like acts of necrophilia. Gillian on the other hand would surprise me in my sleep with yet another new move, stimulating me yet again to heights of ecstasy I’ve never known before which usually culminated in me exploding inside her in violent spurts of blissful rapture. I hungered for all that and I wished I had a wild nymphomaniac for a wife too.

I also entertained the idea of killing my liaison with Gillian and then “cultivate” another “Gillian” – only this time I would assert control and not let her park herself in my life, smothering and suffocating me, leaving me with so little room to breathe. I was pre-occupied with all kinds of wild thoughts. I lost interest in my family and was distant from my kids and began to find my wife repulsive and unbearable.

After what must have been thousands of romps in the hay and one abortion, I came to the conclusion that this could not go on forever. Everything was coming to a head – the guilt, the fear, the overcrowding, and the immense distraction and mental stress the affair was causing – I was going crazy! My blood pressure was so high I was put on three types of medication. I was losing it at work too.

“This has got to end,” I told myself. I was adamant about it. One evening I took Gillian to an apartment I “borrowed” from a cousin who was flying with Qantas. I told Gillian that I now had a new love, that this was the apartment I was sharing with a girlfriend. I told Gillian that this girl was different, that she was a keeper, that unlike her she was someone I could discuss politics, classical music, books and opera with. I told Gillian that I find brainy girls far sexier than mere bimbos. I told Gillian we had to stop, that it was over, that I didn’t love her at all, that actually, all this while I’ve never really loved her, that it was pure animal lust, absolutely nothing to do with love. I told her that she had to accept it once and for all. There wasn’t room in my heart for her anymore. I told her I wanted her out of my sight.

Gillian took one look at woman’s paraphernalia scattered around the apartment with some of my own belongings (which I had strategically planted earlier that day) and stormed out. Okay so I was a coward and a jerk but that did the trick. It was indeed over. But it must have been traumatic for her too. She soon announced her “retirement” from show biz. I chanced upon the news in the media. She was only 24. Later I heard from the grapevine that she has retreated to Luang Prabang to open a guest house. I think it is a pity for someone who had 15 movies – some critically acclaimed – to her credit to quit at the height of her career. But then, c’est la vis…and most importantly, she was out of my life. Free of bondage at last!

Having an extramarital affair is like eating dessert when you’re on a diet: the pleasure is short. The guilt is long and the habit can ruin your life. I was to find that out soon.

But things got better before they got worse. Life slowly returned to normal, here I was, a successful investment banker, president of the North Shore Rotary Club, chairman of Sydney Chinatown Chamber of Commerce; poster boy for the Australian Chinese community, living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, happily married, doting father of three adorable kids, with a beautiful, devoted wife who busied herself with charity work. It was a picture of perfection.

But it was not to be.

Like a bolt from the sky, Celeste stormed into my office out of the blue one day, right smack in the middle of a meeting I had arranged for the chairman of my bank and some of the bank’s potential clients, several mining tycoons from Indonesia. Celeste whizzed past the secretaries and the office staff trying to stop her, bulldozed her way into the wood-paneled board room and threw a large brown envelope in my face, right in front of everyone present. To add to the embarrassment, its contents fell and scattered all over the floor for all to see: a letter written by Gillian enclosing photographs of our trips together, Gillian and I naked in a jacuzzi in some private villa in Crete, the receipt from the abortion clinic, the scan of an unborn child, incriminating evidence all, enough to make me wish that the floor would open up and swallow me. My worst nightmare was happening right in front of my eyes. It was surreal.

It didn’t take long for me to lose my job; not long later, Celeste packed up and re-located with my kids to Perth. The divorce took place soon after. I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, determined to start a life anew.

Life has its twists and turns. Time flew by. The endless grind produced an unbearable ennui. Time in Ho Chi Minh City was like Mozzarella cheese. The pace was awfully slow. Life was filled with nothing but tedium, lassitude, and languor. One lazy Sunday afternoon, at a café at Dong Koi, I looked up from my caramel-flavored condensed milk-loaded Vietnamese coffee to see Gillian standing there. We caught up with each other. Her guest house venture has failed; she has gotten married and divorced as well. She was in Vietnam trying to see if she could start a business exporting Vietnamese paintings to galleries in Hong Kong. It was like old times again. What was there left for two lonely people to do? Gillian soon moved in and life seemed good again. We were no longer agile contortionists on steroids but clearly, in the bed room, happy days were here to stay.

My son Terence eventually succumbed to leukemia. I didn’t even go to the funeral. I didn’t even send a wreath. Gillian and I were in Montenegro when Terence died. Being re-united with Gillian took away a lot of the pain; my drinking also contributed greatly to the increasing numbing of my heart. Besides, I could not face anyone back home. Moreover, I’ve come this far in my long list of wrongs, what was one more wrong to add to the list?

Then something happened. In life, sometimes, all it takes is one pivotal moment, one significant act that would alter things forever. The moment came when I woke up one day to an empty house. Amidst the chirping of the birds and the chugging of the coffee maker, I found Gillian missing. She left a note, she said she has grown up, she didn’t want to be Godpa’s little girl anymore, she couldn’t imagine living the rest of her life with me, growing old with me, surely there’s more to life than what she has know thus far, she felt that while there may still be some feelings left she was quite sure this was not what she wanted. She said she was moving to Los Angeles, she had friends and relatives there, she left no forwarding address.

I was shattered; I was a walking zombie for a couple of months. I flew back to Australia; hoping that maybe it wasn’t too late to make amends, to visit my son’s grave, to right the wrongs. But no one would meet me. Not Celeste, not even my parents nor my own brothers and sisters – not a single relative would want to have anything to do with a person like me. No one would tell me where Terence was buried.

The nights were long and lonely; my only companions were my nightly bottles of cheap whisky. In my heydays only aged single malt would do. Now, it didn’t matter anymore. All I wanted was alcohol to help me cope. Returning to Vietnam, I could not work, I was completely distracted; I made terrible blunders and incurred huge financial losses for the trading house I was working for. For the second time in my life I was fired. I went through a transformation, I started trembling involuntarily, speech slurring, my left eye was almost blind, I couldn’t manage anything anymore. I flew to Malaysia and bunked in with a cousin, but fish and house guests smell bad once you’ve overstayed your welcome so I moved back to Sydney eventually.

***

I must have stood in front of the toilet sink for the longest time, leaning there, reminiscing. Outside, morning has broken. I could hear the kookaburras sing. Soon the place would be abuzz with activities again. I would have to pick my bag up and move on to another park, another hiding place before being shooed away.

I splashed cold icy tap water on my face, in the mirror the scraggy person looking back wasn’t someone I recognize. Matted hair, blood shot eyes, messy facial hair. What a dirty, mangy dog of a man. Who is this? Ex-investment banker from Merrill Lynch? MBA from the London School of Economics? Not a penny to my name now, having to scavenger and scrounge for discarded soda cans to sell for a pittance, when I’ve had Beluga and Dom Pérignon for breakfast once; when I lived life in the fast lane. The other homeless men in the park laugh at me when I told them that I once flew on private jets, drove a Ferrari Testarossa and went for ski vacations in the Swiss Alps and owned a summer home in Mallorca.

The young school kids are the most vicious; they pass by, twitch their noses and make monkey faces at me. Some would throw stones.

Their nannies seem kinder, always shushing them and telling them not to make fun of the “mad man.”

At the peak of my career, they used to call me “sir.”

For me, it doesn’t matter anymore. Life goes on, a few more empty soda cans, another park bench; another day…life’s been off-kilter for a long time now…better to slip through life’s rich pageantry in anonymity.

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