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Friday, Apr. 01, 2005 - 4:51 p.m.

To him - everyday is a new day and a new beginning because he has Alzheimer's Disease. Every morning, he wakes up startled next to a strange woman he has never seen before. The bed is unfamiliar and he does not know where he is. His yells wake her up, and she explains to him, as she has done so for the past five years, that she is his wife. They have one daughter, this is their flat. This bed was the first piece of furniture they bought together when they got married fifty years ago.

Then she prepares breakfast - coffee, and two pieces of toast with kaya, and they have it on the small foldable table in the kitchen. One corner of the table is no longer a sharp right angle, but a smooth rounded corner. It is like this because of all the years of family dinners, when he had nothing to say to mother and daughter, and just rubbed the table corner with his palm silently. You were a man of few words, she tells him, and you had fewer words the older you grew, but you were a good man, a caring father and husband. He does not remember any of the things that she tells him, but his habits persist. He still rubs his feet against the thin metal legs of the table unconsciously. He still pours his coffee from the cup onto the saucer, and blows across it before slurping it down loudly. To him, all of this is instinctual, and his wife sometimes feels that nothing at all has changed because she is blind and can only hear him.

She can hear that his voice is calmer after breakfast, after having been retrofitted with his history. It is not a new thought, and it comes again to her after breakfast as she washes the dishes: human beings are nothing without their histories.

He asks her, what is your name? It does not matter what you call me, she replies, you will forget it again tomorrow. But he is adamant, saying that he must know the name of his wife. She tells him. And our daughter? Where is our daughter? he asks. She wipes the table with a cloth and says that she is married and living at her husband's house. He is a lawyer in a big company and they have two wonderful children. He wants to see his grandchildren immediately, but she says they just visited the two boys a few days ago. Maybe next week, she promises.

Then she tells him to read the newspaper while she does the housework. There should be a copy outside the front door. Do you need any help? he offers. No, she says as she goes over the tiled floor with the caress of a broom, but thank you. How can you see the dust? he says. This question has been asked before, and she has already perfected her answer. She smiles at him and says, even with eyes you cannot see the dust. Its presence is not something you see, but something you feel.

He opens the door to the flat and she can feel the angled light of the morning sun pour in. Bending down to retrieve the paper, he looks at the date, but it is a meaningless series of numbers to him.

They go to the hawker centre opposite their block of flats for lunch, and all the stall-owners seem to know them, but to him, he is seeing their faces for the first time. The female bak kut teh seller joins them at the table for a few minutes, and talks about the problems that her children face in school. What are their names, the man asks. Later the bak kut teh seller watches the old couple totter out of the hawker centre and she smiles at them. But it is not an admiring smile directed at the quaintness of their unity - it is a smile of pity for the old woman's bondage. They are a pair of deficit creatures walking the sheltered concrete path back to their block of flats. He holds her by the arm and guides her, she without her vision, and he without his past.

Back in the flat, she hears the wooden creak of the couch as he sits down and unfolds the newspaper. It is always amusing to know that he is reading the paper. There are a few minutes of silence, and then the ruffling sound of the pages turning, news being turned to mere history, then more minutes of silence. Here is a man with no memory reading the latest news, but it is not the news that is late. Rather, it is the old man's arrival every morning.

The newspaper is actually two years old. They have no daughter or grandchildren, and he was not a good man. It is true that the bed they sleep in was the first thing they bought together, but the old woman does not mention that he had brought other women home to sleep in it. The infidelity is always the worst when it is committed at home. Her blindness was caused by his hand as well; he had pushed her during an argument about the other transient women sharing their bed, and her eyes struck the angled glass panes of the old HDB window.

She has forgiven him for everything, even if it is not completely of her own volition. How do you keep accusing someone of crimes he does not remember? She can narrate all of this difficult reality when he wakes up next to her every morning, but then would he cry? Feel guilty? Ask for forgiveness? Alzheimer's has absolved all his sins, given her a reprieve, a second chance to carefully construct the domestic life that she envisioned when they married fifty years ago.

She is both wife and narrator. If she wants to change the details of what their wedding dinner was like, whether they had a daughter or two sons, she can easily do so because after all, it is all just a matter of words. She has been given days when she can tell him an ideal story about the two of them, and nights containing the satisfaction that all the other women are completely forgotten and no longer exist. No one else will ever violate the rectangular sanctity of their bed, the bed that they bought together.

But before she kisses him and falls asleep each night, she has to accomplish one final task, of folding the newspaper carefully and dropping that innocent paper-anchor of time outside the front door to their fragile and imaginary home.


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