J u Lin set the bowl of rice next to the blaze and the sickly feeling returned. It was a sensation she knew well, this clammy thrill coursing through her body whenever she betrayed George. Ju Lin couldn’t help it. In fact, Ju Lin wanted it. She looked at the clock—4:12pm—and knew she had time.
Ju Lin fingered the waxy sheen of each fragment and sorted them into groups as if they were mahjong tiles. It was easier when George wasn’t stroking her arm with his delicate fingers. Sitting alone, Ju Lin saw the devastation clearly and with pleasure. She marked the inside edge of the unfinished puzzle with clumps of rice. She once used peppercorns but they kept rolling around. Salt was too messy. The sticky grains, which looked like stiff premature maggots, were the perfect choice.
With the iron curtain drawn, Ju Lin began assembling the last of the jigsaw puzzle and the Great Fire of London burned before her. Last night, George rejoiced as they neared the end.
“Only two bits left,” he had said with a smile. “Let’s put it beside the Kuala Lumpur one! My hometown next to yours.”
He was excited to finish it together, like always, before framing it alongside the others. A corner piece was missing from the Kuala Lumpur puzzle but George hadn’t said anything. Ju Lin pursed her lips as she thought of his beaming face. She worked in silence and completed the fiery mess of St. Paul’s Cathedral without hesitation.
Five years ago, Ju Lin stood with a group of other international students and stared up at St. Paul’s, a longstanding relic of her country’s last owner. Its silhouette looked carved into the penetratingly blue sky. George, who was their orientation leader, talked gravely about the destruction in 1666 and how the walls split asunder. His grey eyes were alert with awe and blinked often as he spoke. George sometimes wore that same look whenever he and Ju Lin had sex. She often looked away and wasn’t sure what he took that for.
Ju Lin clicked the remaining pieces into each other and the terror on London Bridge snapped into full focus. Now the whole city was aflame. Ju Lin’s bowels gurgled in response. She took a big breath before dragging a hand across the puzzle, trying to quell the movement in her gut, trying to ignore the scrunching inside her chest as she thought of what happened on the bridge two years ago.
Why did you agree? she wondered again.
Ju Lin’s finger caught a stray grain of rice and she put it in her mouth. She looked at the clock as she chewed—5:14pm—and decided to make coffee before dismembering the puzzle. Mama and George should still be an hour each.
The kitchen window had the best view of the tree-lined streets. Ju Lin tipped the still-scorching liquid down her open throat and gazed outside the apartment George’s parents gave him. She pictured George’s hunched back as he sat at his desk, frantically typing away at emails and numbers and other money-making things. George wet his lips compulsively when he was stressed. Ju Lin remembered how his mouth glistened on London Bridge.
It was this she remembered with an aching clarity: The bright spring sun, strangers pulling out their phones, and the sheen of saliva above George’s top lip when he looked at her eagerly, down on one knee.
Disgust welled in Ju Lin and she quickly put down the mug. The coffee swirled with something rotten and Ju Lin instinctively clenched everything tight as she strode to the toilet, still squeezing, breathing deeply, so the waste wouldn’t pour out. Ju Lin exhaled loudly when she let it go plunging into the water below. It splattered back up against her skin. She sat back on the toilet seat and waited for it to be over.
Ju Lin sat up with a squeak as her bare buttock rubbed the porcelain. Her insides were still emptying at trickling intervals. She heard muffled thuds as someone slammed the door. What time was it?
“Ju Lin, I’m home!” Mama’s voice called out forcefully.
Of course it’s not him, Ju Lin thought with a sigh. George always came home at the same time.
When Ju Lin strode back into the living room, Mama was kneeling beside the coffee table. Ju Lin’s mother was a small woman with perfect posture. Mama’s torso seemed uncomfortably erect as she prodded at the rice and then pinched away the clumps.
“Daughter, why are you always making a mess?”
Ju Lin gaped at the Great Fire. Mama’s dark eyes looked bored.
“I thought you’d be home later,” Ju Lin said. It was only 5:38pm.
“Auntie Beth had to rush off somewhere,” Mama replied. She began plucking the remaining clusters of rice and methodically undoing the pieces Ju Lin put into place. It was over in less than a minute. Mama’s lips were slightly pursed as she brusquely swept up the discarded grains and rose to her feet.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?”
No, I don’t.
Ju Lin walked over to the burning landscape, incomplete once more, and knew she’d let George have the final touch. Ju Lin wished she could have relished her solitary triumph for just fifteen minutes longer.
“When will you stop finishing puzzles behind your husband’s back?” Mama said.
“It makes me happy,” Ju Lin whispered.
Mama raised her thinly drawn eyebrows as far as they would go. For a moment the two women glared at each other in silence, but Ju Lin’s mother broke the spell with a big belly laugh. Mama’s mouth opened grotesquely as she threw her head back. It lasted only a few seconds, but as Mama’s guffaw subsided and she scowled at her daughter, Ju Lin felt she had been a joke all her life.
“You have a husband who pays for everything and a marriage that lets us both stay in this country for free. And you need to do such stupid things to be happy?” Mama uttered a sharp scoff. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ju Lin.”
None of it is for free! Ju Lin wanted to cry. But Mama already turned away and was taking meat out of the fridge. Ju Lin simply stood there, aimless, and watched her mother slam the knife into the chicken before prying it open with bare hands. When Mama stood at the sink, slowly washing the blood and flesh-smell away, Ju Lin imagined her mocking voice again. Mama had said the same thing when Ju Lin confessed deep doubts about George a month after the engagement. She had considered going home. Mama’s voice cut the same through the years: Don’t be ridiculous, Ju Lin.
They both heard the door open.
When George walked into the living room, his grey eyes brightened at the sight of his wife. The worship was so unabashed, the childlike love so innocent, that it actually made Ju Lin shiver.
“Hello sweetheart,” George chimed as he engulfed her with his arms. “I hope you had a nice day.”
Ju Lin locked eyes with Mama as George held her tight. No one listened to Ju Lin’s heart as it beat its weak fists screaming Let me out Let me out Let me go.
Later that night, after they devoured the chicken rice and ate strawberries for dessert, George tucked a strand of Ju Lin’s black hair behind her ear. Then he asked, very gently, “Did you finish the job application today like you wanted to, honey?”
“Aiyah, she was too busy daydreaming,” Mama answered. She chuckled to make it sound light hearted and started to clear the plates.
Ju Lin stared at Mama, who seemed to have polished the role of the well-meaning but cruel mother to a professional degree. George gave Ju Lin’s hand a squeeze and stayed quiet. She had been working on job applications for the last six months.
“You know, I had a thought today,” Mama said as she returned to the table. “You’ve been married for over a year. When will you bless this old lady with a grandchild?” Mama’s smile was radiant.
George grinned and gave a delighted laugh. He gripped Ju Lin’s hand even tighter but she said nothing. She didn’t know what to say. Instead, Ju Lin performed a loving look. Mama’s smirk was almost imperceptible.
“Shall we finish the puzzle?” Ju Lin asked George after Mama crept to sleep.
“I can think of something better to do,” George replied sheepishly. A trace of white hot hunger shined in his eyes.
Beside their bed, George undressed Ju Lin until there was nothing on her skin except a sapphire pendant on a thin silver chain. George had clasped it around her neck on their one-year wedding anniversary. Ju Lin cherished this gift from her husband the most—it reminded her of the beautiful things she planned to buy for herself.
When Ju Lin reached for the condom, George shook his head and softly pulled back her hand.
“You would be an amazing mother.”
George’s pale cheeks were flushed as he murmured the words, and his breathing steadied as he waited for Ju Lin to answer. A cold fear started howling inside Ju Lin but George couldn’t hear that. She only nodded silently at her husband, which he took as a Yes.
When it was over, and George lay glowing on the sheets, Ju Lin went to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. As she sat urinating, trying to get it all out, panic was thickening in her stomach. Four months after she married George, Ju Lin looked up what would happen if she left him and how that would affect the visa he gave her. Children complicated the process. As Ju Lin wiped herself, she knew the alarm inside her was becoming a hard shape. And that shape had blinking grey eyes.
“I’m going to make a hot drink, do you want anything?” Ju Lin asked George when she stepped out of the bathroom. She pulled on a robe.
George, who was already reading in bed, smiled and shook his head.
Ju Lin went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She walked to the side of the sofa as the water began to boil, and reached down for the tattered bag slumped almost out of sight. It was teeming with notebooks and loose pens. Ju Lin put it away after she finished the job application this afternoon. She felt good about this one. All she could do now was hope for the best.
Ju Lin unzipped a side pocket on the interior of the bag. She knew neither George nor Mama would ever rummage through her things. George was too considerate for that. And Mama thought she knew all her daughter’s secrets.
Moving swiftly, she popped the pill from its foil casing and placed it in her mouth.
Do you know how it works? The pharmacist asked Ju Lin all those months ago. Ju Lin knew. The sooner, the better. She dry swallowed the pill and stuffed the empty casing back where it came from. She made a mental note to visit the pharmacy this week.
Ju Lin made lemon and ginger tea. She stirred in a spoonful of honey and waited only a moment before taking a hasty sip. It burned her tongue, but Ju Lin needed to feel the pill driven deeper inside her. As Ju Lin walked past the coffee table on the way back to the bedroom, she stopped. Ju Lin gazed at the scattered pieces that Mama pulled apart. They were illuminated by the hallway light that Ju Lin switched on.
She scanned the untethered parts of the puzzle, little shapes of red and black and sunlight yellow. They were barely bigger than her thumbnail. Ju Lin knew she was good at moving these fragments to form something from the mess. She knew she would do it again and again.
Ju Lin lifted a puzzle piece and dropped it into her steaming cup. She swirled it until it softened and bled colour. She scooped the limp shard in a pool of liquid and emptied the spoon at the back of her tongue. Ju Lin gulped the searing tea and washed the piece away to somewhere hidden deep inside. It would stay missing until her gut couldn’t take it anymore.
Aisha Hassan is a Malaysian writer and journalist. She previously worked at Quartz in New York and Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia). Aisha currently works at a foundation that supports underprivileged children.