Mia Corazon Aureus
Fridays are pizza nights at Marché in Somerset with Will, my gay best friend and roommate. I stare at framed photos of cows on the peach wall, as he munches his salami pizza with eyes closed.
‘Will,’ I say.
With his eyes still shut, he puts up his index finger. He has his black, shoulder-length hair tied neatly in a man-bun and I watch his masculine jawline move and crunch a crust in his mouth.
‘Okaaay,’ I say. I should know better than to disturb him while he’s lost, having an affair with his pizza.
Low-hanging light bulbs cast a sunset glow around the busy dining place. Children’s shrill screams rise above the chatter and clinking cutlery. The little blonde brat at the table beside me throws a tantrum while his poor mum feeds him mashed potatoes.
‘Mamá! Agua!’ he demands, reaching for his plastic cup of water.
‘How old is he?’ I ask the mother.
‘Five,’ she says, with a thick Spanish accent. She flashes me five candle-slender fingers as if I too am a child. ‘Are you… eh… a local here?’
‘Ah. But you, eh… sound Americana.'
‘Watched too many American shows, I guess.’
Her devil of a son pounds his pudgy hands on the table, accidentally hitting a spoon and splattering his mum’s cream blouse with gravy.
‘Bastante ya, Carlos,’ she says, wiping goop off her chin and chest. She sighs, gives me an apologetic smile, and hastily collects her bag with an orange tiger toy peeking out. Her kid starts bawling as they walk over to the cashier near the escalator. Where’s her husband? Or boyfriend? Or whatever?
‘Contemplating motherhood?’ Will teases.
‘I was just thinking of the top ten ways to gag a toddler.’
Will rolls his eyes. ‘So, what’s the important thing you wanna tell me, you heartless human being?’
‘I need a plus one. For Monica’s wedding.’
My timid Singaporean-Chinese colleague, Monica, has been head over heels in love with Dexter, the American guy from the video production department she has been dating for three years. I don’t know why. He’s a weasel. He hit on me half a year ago when I came in his studio to get a head shot for my webinar on Asia’s rice import outlook.
‘Can you turn slightly to the left?’ Dexter instructed as I stood in front of a printed backdrop of Singapore’s Central Business District.
‘I think this is a better angle for me though,’ I said, dabbing sweat off my face with a tissue. ‘Can we finish this sooner? I have a report to submit.’
He lowered his camera and looked at me, his lips taut like yarn. I stared back and noticed the greasy tight curls that sprouted from his head and hung on his face like fern leaves.
‘We won’t finish if you keep insisting on what you want. Trust me, Rachel. I know a good angle when I see one,’ he said.
‘Fine.’ I shuffled my feet to the left.
‘Smile!’ His camera flashed five times, maybe six. Each snapshot documented my road to blindness.
‘I’ll send you the two best ones,’ he said.
‘Can you send me all the photos?’ I asked, thinking I could use those as evidence if I did lose my eyesight and sued him.
‘Don’t worry, Rachel. You looked hot in your photo.’
‘Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are? I take pictures of a lot of people. So trust me when I pay you a compliment.’ I bristled at his words. I’d trust you as much as I’d trust a spawn of Satan.
Call me a snitch, or whatever. But I told Monica as soon as I got back to my desk. I felt it was my duty to protect her, or any woman, from dirtbags like Dexter. Especially when she was marrying him.
‘Mon, your fiancé’s a dick,’ I whispered discreetly so the pea-faced gossip girl in the row behind us won’t hear.
Monica adjusted her computer glasses and continued to hit the keyboard like an adept pianist.
‘Pssst! Mon, did you hear me?’ The office was abuzz with the sound of people talking on the phone and the staccato rhythm of analysts typing their reports and plotting forward curves.
My friend turned and perched her eyeglasses on her dyed ginger hair. Dark shadows rimmed her narrow eyes, and her left brow looked higher than the right. Her cherubim cheeks were pinched pink, making her look like an innocent child and far from turning thirty.
‘Let me guess. He said you’re the most beautiful girl he had ever laid eyes on,’ Monica said.
‘You know? That asshole!’ I gasped.
‘Do you think if I lose weight he’d stop chasing other girls?’
I wanted to tit-punch her.
‘What do you see in that guy, anyway? He acts like God’s gift to women the way he picks up girls.’
Monica breathed deeply. ‘I don’t know, Rach. All I know is, I’d be shattered if… if I lose him. You know what it’s like. How long were you and George together?’
‘George who?’ I buried that name a year ago.
‘Ah. You need a favour. From moi.’ Will rubs his hands together and flashes a devil smile.
Shit. He’s going to make me work for this.
‘Can’t you find a straight guy to be your plus one?’ he asks. ‘I can ask Tim out for you.’
‘What? You mean Krusty the Clown from your IT department?’
‘You’re so judgy.’
‘Have you even seen the size of his hair?’
‘Seen it? Honey, that’s the only thing I see when he talks to me.’
I laugh. ‘Why’d you even think I’d go out with him?’
‘He likes you.’
‘Well, I don’t like him.’
‘You don’t like anyone.’
‘That is not true.’
‘What about that guy three doors down from our apartment. He’s cute.’
‘Who? Tiny Ears Jake?’
‘He doesn’t have tiny ears.’
‘Yes, he does. Or maybe his head is just too big?’ I say, sipping my lemonade.
‘See! That’s my point. You don’t like anyone because you always find something to criticize. Why can’t you just stop judging people and open yourself up again?’
I finish my drink and begin fishing out the ice tubes with my straw.
Will lets out a deep sigh.
‘Why don’t we make a deal?’ he continues.
Here it comes. The list of things to do in exchange of the ‘favor.’
‘We have this new colleague in the sales department. I’m going to set you up on a blind date with him. People said he’s single. If you can sit with him for an hour, I’ll go with you to the wedding. If not, either you sit there alone with your miserable self, or find your own date.’
‘What’s his name? Have you even talked to this guy?’
‘Richard. Just the occasional hello, good morning at the pantry.’
‘What if he’s a psycho?’
‘He’s not a psycho.’
‘You don’t know that, you only said hello.’
‘This is why it’s a challenge. We’ll leave him a blank canvas, so you’ll have nothing to pick on. Give it a shot. Take a leap,’ Will says, his eyes opening wide with excitement. ‘What do you say, Rach?’
I reach for Will’s half-full glass of iced tea and drink it. I seriously consider the option of going to the wedding alone. But when I think about sitting at the table surrounded by couples glowing in their nauseating bliss and having people look at me and feel sorry for the girl who got dumped by a cheating bastard, I realize I need my Will. I can’t go through it alone.
‘C’mon. Who knows, you might find L-O-V-E,’ Will says.
I snort, and cold tea goes up my nose. God! That is painful!
Will hands me a table napkin.
‘Okay. Deal,’ I finally agree, as I wipe the spattered drink and snot off my face.
I find myself next Friday evening standing at the end of the staircase outside Royal Mail Restaurant at Ascott Raffles Place. It’s unusually breezy for a June night, and I hold onto my blue halter dress to avoid making a Marilyn Monroe scene. Will said I have to show some skin. Apparently, ‘some skin’ means exposing my back to pneumonia. If I die, I swear I’ll be his own personal poltergeist and haunt him until he’s a wrinkly prune on his deathbed. The nude straps of my high-heeled shoes begin to rub my skin raw. Blame Will for your pain and agony, I tell my feet. The wind blows again and I spit out hair that got caught in my mouth. Where’s that fuckin’ date? It’s almost eight.
A yellow Comfort Delgro cab pulls over in front of me and out step shiny mahogany leather shoes that grow into a roughly five-foot, four-inch tall man. He has wavy brown hair parted in the middle and a beard so thick it covers his small, thin face. For a second, I thought I saw a chipmunk with hazel green eyes. I watch him strut over to the other side of the staircase in a neat, grey pinstriped suit. He checks his watch and looks at me. Is he Richard? Shit. I hear his shoes tap their way over to where I stand and stop next to my stupid strappy high heels.
‘Hi,’ he says.
‘Richard?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says, which sounds more like ‘yuush.’ Probably because of the forest growing around his mouth.
‘Oh, I thought I heard my colleague say your name’s Michelle. Must’ve heard it wrong. You know how we are in the finance business. Always busy chasing money.’ He winks and laughs so hard I see his tonsils.
I blink in disbelief.
‘Anyway, call me Rick.’ I think you’re more of a Dick.
‘So, shall we go inside?’ he asks. Before I can answer, he turns around and struts up the stairs.
The smell of roasted prime ribs welcomes me when I reach the restaurant door, and my stomach grumbles. A few women in little black dresses join some men at the bar. They are toasting to a football match on television.
A headwaiter in black vest introduces himself as Ameer. He confirms Dick’s reservation before gesturing for him to go up the mezzanine. I watch my date check himself in the silver mirror paneling the walls near the stairs before climbing up and wonder if this is what Will means about ‘challenge.’ Did he purposefully set me up with a Neanderthal?
‘I’m with Johnny Bravo over there,’ I tell Ameer, before dragging my sore feet up the low, winding steps.
A brunette waiter in a white collared shirt and black trousers ushers us to a table near the bannisters. His fringes are stylishly brushed to the side like Justin Bieber’s. Travis, his gold name badge reads.
‘Be right back,’ Dick says, as Travis pulls out the chair for me and places a napkin on my lap. The waiter nods and promises to return with the menu.
While Dick dashes off to the gents at the far end of the dining hall, I notice a petite Chinese lady enter the restaurant and approach the headwaiter. She looks like a Christmas ball in her tight, sequined fuchsia dress. I peer over the bannister and watch their exchange. She points at the computer screen and throws her hands up in the air. Ameer cups his chin with his hand and shakes his head. Then he gestures for the woman to wait.
‘Sorry,’ Dick says, jolting me from my seat.
‘Oh, you didn’t have to hurry,’ I say.
‘I don’t like to keep people waiting. Time is money.’
‘Yeah. I bet. Sitting here with me must be costing you a fortune.’
‘Ah, don’t worry your pretty little head, love. Quality time is precious.’ He gazes at me like some Greek god lusting after a tree nymph. Can souls cringe?
‘Ha! I’m starving,’ I say, looking for Travis. I’d take a Bieber wannabe any day rather than get stuck with this colossal douche.
‘Seriously, Rach. Dinner with—’
‘Please call me Rachel.’
‘Dinner with a client, I can seal a deal of about two million dollars.’ He takes off his jacket and raises his arm. A sweat stain the shape of South America welcomes Bieber back to our table, menus at the ready.
Dick is in the middle of ordering caviar and sea urchin when Ameer walks over to our table, his hands clasped on his chest.
‘I’m sorry, sir. But there is a lady downstairs looking for you. She says she’s your date?’ Ameer says, regarding me with suspicion.
‘But my date is here,’ Dick says.
‘Yes. I can see that, sir. Would you mind coming with me to sort out this… confusion?’
Dick follows Ameer downstairs and I strain my ears to hear what they say. I catch phrases like, ‘you’re Stan’s…’ ‘I’m Michelle…’ ‘…should’ve told me,’ ‘what time…’ The trio looks up to where I am sitting and I quickly pretend to scour the menu. Dick and company march back up the stairs and stare me down as if I am caught red-handed nicking a spoon.
The fuchsia Christmas ball glowers at me for stealing her douche. ‘You’re in my seat,’ she says. The chatter at the restaurant dies a little as everyone holds their champagne glasses in mid-air or leave their knives halfway through slicing their steaks to gape at the unfolding drama.
Well, this is embarrassing.
Ameer elbows Travis standing next to him and asks him to escort me downstairs.
‘Sorry about that, love,’ Dick says to Michelle, as she sits snuggly on the chair. ‘Say, you look ravishing in that dress.’ The girl holds her menu and giggles demurely. Clearly, he’s blind. I take my walk of shame down the steps and out the door, back to the marble steps that led me to that fiasco. At least I don’t have to endure that scum anymore. And Will isn’t friends with him. For a moment there, I worried Will was mixing with the wrong crowd.
‘Rachel?’ Someone calls out. I turn and see a guy in casual black V-neck shirt and khaki pants standing where I stood earlier tonight.
‘Sorry I’m late. Will said you’d be wearing a blue dress. I’m Richard.’
Is it raining Richards today?
‘You look lovely,’ he says.
I stare at him, deciding if he’s a Rick or just another dick.
‘Err…do I have something on my face?’ he asks. ‘I thought of bringing you flowers, by the way. But Will said you’ll just dump it in the bin. So, got you this instead.’
He pulls out two bookmarks from his pocket. They’re made from tree bark fabric with batik prints from Indonesia. He smiles sheepishly, but in a cute way as he hands them to me.
Shit. He’s a Rick.