While You Were Singing

This is my first murder and I need a smoke. Homicides in New Woods are as rare as snowfall in Jamaica. I spend most days at the office listening to a tinny Nina Simone on my Nokia and finding new smoking spots by the police station. The newspaper here is incredibly thin; lost cat articles and local sports coverage don’t require much space. The most crime we get are petty thefts and drunk driving. But today, there’s a man I need to interrogate.  

“I don’t know nothing. You’ve got the wrong guy here.”

Jalal “Johnny” Abadi is our primary suspect. He says it’s because he’s Syrian and the police are racist. I remind him the whole town is brown – New Woods is largely comprised of South Asians and Arabs.

“Where were you between 6pm and 9pm on December 13th?”

“I already told you, I was at Hallelujah, drinking with my buddies.”

“And who are these buddies?”

“Ali and Ram, my bros. Ask anyone.”

Johnny Abadi is Syrian but has an accent from Jersey Shore. I finger the Marlboros in my pocket and sigh.

“We just had a couple of beers, nothing more. We were there from six to eleven. Then walked back to my place and crashed. The end.”

The thing is, when anyone says “the end”, it’s never the end. Far from it. This is a truth so boring and predictable that it becomes tragic.

What Johnny doesn’t know is that I was there that night; I am his witness. Seth had asked to meet me at Hallelujah Bar that Friday, so we could ‘talk things over’. This meant watching him drink and stutter and then drink some more for a few solid hours, while we both felt sorry for ourselves. Johnny had been there in the back with his two friends, each of their raucous laughs tottering on the edge of full-on retching. None of them saw me; it was dark and they were drunk. I remember Louis Armstrong playing in the background and I’d thought out loud that this pathetic scene in a plastered-up bar didn’t deserve such a beautiful soundtrack. Seth had snickered like a schoolkid, as if the picture he was laughing at did not include him. In the background, Louis sang about sweet and predictable things, like endless love, and this time I knew it was over.

***

I always wanted to be a jazz singer. So I became a cop. My mother never thought anyone could sustain themselves on Billie Holiday and the blues.

“You’ve got a voice, Amanda-bear. But be practical.”

She’d say it with a smile that was as diluted as the cheap grocery milk in our refrigerator. Even when she flattened my dreams, she did it feebly, as if watered-down refusal could burn any less. But it was just her style, her way of doing things. Sometimes, I thought my mother looked at life like a bottle of nail polish that had accidentally dropped into her lap. But when she unscrewed the cap, all the colour had run thin and there was nothing else to be done.

“Be practical, Amanda,” she’d say, over and over, till the words smudged out the Coltrane songs in my head. I knew when she looked at her daughter, she didn’t see me. She saw a dashing policeman she once desperately tried to love. I pitied her and I pitied me. Be practical. So I became what she asked me to, packed up my records and went away to police academy. There was nothing else to be done.

***

I started dating Seth because he looked like my father. He was a banker – a romantic in an unromantic job, was how he put it. We met at Hallelujah Bar – how ironic – at a private birthday party. This was before near-bankruptcy cramped Hallelujah’s style and the faux-French decorations collapsed. I had been hired to sing for the party, some frothy karaoke to keep the mood floating. My mother didn’t know. I was 31 years old but still couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I worked nights singing in bars, trying to outrun the grey gloom of my day job. Sometimes, I think if my mother had to face another big shock, she would lose her half-hearted grip on things and simply evaporate.

The bar pulsed that night, a beating haze of a party. I tried to sing to the sweating blur, each body veiled by a cloud of marijuana and sin. But from the stage, Seth was unmissable; there was the straggle of dark brown hair and the abnormally large, stocky build. Disturbed and awed, I couldn’t stop looking.

Two hours later, he was by my ear, whispering, and I felt something cold and curious spread through my body.

“I was watching you. You were good. You were really good.”

“Watching me?”

“While you were singing.”

I swivelled around and he smiled, slow and gap-toothed.

“Hi. I’m Seth.”

What that smile kindled, blindsided me. Our relationship, at first, seemed too well-oiled, too glaring with happiness. When I moved into his apartment, I nearly wanted to see a mess. Seth was large and lumbering and clumsy; I could not imagine him with a drawer full of colour-coded cufflinks. But this was what being with him was – like trying to unwrap a present but never getting there, never discovering what’s really within. I learned he liked to iron his shirts at 1:34 am. “I couldn’t sleep, babe,” he’d say. I’d roll my eyes and then roll over back to sleep, safe under a duvet of curious contentment. My flaccid life, with its unbroken streams of noise calls, parking tickets and small talk at the station, had gained vivacity. Seth became a new case for me to solve, something I could languish over, carefully collecting new clues, oddities, evidence – his favourite ice-cream flavour, the stubborn lick of hair he could never tame, the brand of biscuits he hated so I could avoid them in the supermarket. I amassed new fragments of him and polished them over in my mind, thinking the sum, the great, shiny debris that made up Seth, would confirm I was in love. When he looped his arm around my neck, called me ‘his girl’ at office parties, went to jazz shows and pretended to like it, I was sure I felt it. I was sure.

The first time he hit me, I was floored.

It was late and he had been angry; he was always angry these days. A month ago, he’d lost his job at the bank, to an outsider called Toby Agthia. They claimed he had better credentials and a real, ‘fresh vision’. Seth had come home silent, his body taut with unshed fury. I made tea and we sat on opposite sides of the dinner table.  He looked at me for a long time and then left.

At breakfast the next day, he came up to me and said: “I’m nothing. That guy walked in and took my place and now I’m nothing.”

After that, he stopped spending nights at the apartment.

“Where were you, Seth?”

“Won’t you say anything?

In the spaces of his silence, I would sing a song in my head: I’ll Be Seeing You by Billie Holiday. I had sung it the day we first met, when I saw my father’s gap-toothed smile in his face. He was a walking warning; I should have known.

***

“You need to talk to me.”

“What do you want, Amanda?”

“I want you to tell me where you go every night. Please. I want you to tell me why you don’t talk to me anymore. I –“

I started to cry, the knot in my throat undoing itself. Suddenly, I felt very small, very aware of my humanness. I became a little girl of five again, sobbing at the keyhole of her parents’ bedroom door.

“Leave it. I have nothing to say.”

“Stop lying to me. I want to know. Tell me why you’re never here, Seth. Who are you with? Who do you see?”

I watched him, pathetic with hysteria. We were a cheap tragedy, a clichéd adultery plot of a D-list film.

“I told you I have nothing to say.”

“That’s a lie! That’s a lie and you know it.”

“What the fuck has gotten into you? I told you there’s nothing to tell!”

“You’re lying to me, Seth! I don’t fucking give a shit anymore, just tell me the truth! Tell me who you go to fuck every night. Tell me her name! Tell me which whore you drown your sorrows with – “

And then I was on the floor, the apartment spiralling.

The first person I thought of was my mother. I raced to be everything she was not and still I failed; it was almost laughable. In the dim light of the bedroom, I felt my eye purple like a fat grape. I must have been the spitting image of her on the night of her wedding.

The thing is, we always end up like our parents. This is a truth so boring and predictable that it becomes tragic.

***

My mother was wrong about the blues, I think, as Johnny gabbles on in front of me in the interrogation room. She was wrong because I may not be singing them anymore but that doesn’t mean they’ve left. In the mornings, I wake up to find a shard of ice inside my chest, so cold and thick that nothing could ever break it. I didn’t choose to become this person, to be something I didn’t want to be.

“I didn’t do it, okay? D’you hear me? I didn’t do it.”

I look at Johnny, at his hair gelled up into a choppy hedge on the top of his head, and his long fingers that could’ve skimmed across a piano in another life. He stares back at me and the Louis Armstrong tune from that fateful Hallelujah night, swims into my head. The song that was playing the night Toby Agthia was murdered: a soundtrack for a killing.

Ever since I got this murder case, I can’t help but smell plumes of blood, like warm metal, in sudden moments. I smell it in the apartment. I smell it when we go to see Toby Agthia’s body in the morgue, as part of this sham investigation. I smell it in facts. Time of murder: 6.30pm.

I smelt it when he used to come to bed drunk and dig his fingernails into my flesh. When I finally ran away from the apartment, just before the sun cracked the sky open in the morning, the smell followed me to the station, slept in my clothing, whispered in my sleep and rested in my hair. It was everywhere Seth touched me. It hasn’t left me since.

“Thank you, Mr Abadi. You can go now.”

I watch Johnny leave the interrogation room and feel the shard of ice splintering in my chest. He’d only been arrested because the most likely person to commit homicide, according to the New Woods police force, is ‘troublemaker’ Johnny with the criminal record.

But we never really needed to question him. Hadn’t I known from the beginning? Hadn’t I realized it yet?

***

It is 7.30pm. Friday night at Hallelujah. I’ve been waiting for Seth for over an hour; of course he is late for the ending. When he enters, I see his hands are shaking. I am struck again by how much he looks like my father. It is fitting that he’s going to leave me then, fitting that he teems with the hidden capability to wound, to destroy.

Louis Armstrong plays in the background. Most days, the only times I feel the shard inside me thawing is when I listen to jazz. It’s as if somebody’s poured warm syrup over my thoughts and suddenly, life feels softer, more pliable, like I could finally melt down its hardness and hold it in my hands.

While the song flows around us, Seth drinks, his hands still trembling. Johnny and his friends laugh behind us. I think I smell a twinge of blood, like warm metal, in the air – I’m probably a little drunk. I notice something about Seth is wrong tonight, off-kilter like a painting hung wrong. I keep drinking.

 

Outside, unknown to me, a man lies dead: Toby Agthia, from Singapore. Toby Agthia, who stole Seth’s job. Toby Agthia, who caused three destructions without knowing it – Seth’s, mine and his. Later, as Johnny is released, I will remember this, remember Seth’s shaking hands, the panic in his beer breath, the hurt he carried in his fists. My mind will scrabble with thought-creatures, fat with the blood of realization. I will remember everything.

 

But for now, the night deepens and we get drunker. For now, I am unaware. Louis Armstrong sings in the background, something about endless love.

It is a liberation, a killing, an ending.

 

 

Painting by Udi Peled, “Ella Fitzgerald”

 

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