Rom-com

Movie theatre. Shiny darkness around their feet—the shape and size of large shopping bags. Gave them an excuse to sit with their knees sufficiently far apart, proud of being proper.

Third date. Jason would have liked to put his arm around her shoulder. But his hands were full of popcorn.

He had upsized to impress her, placing money on the counter like a bet. The whole thing a gamble. She had smiled sweetly when asked. But her eyes, the hardness of her high cheekbones, and the slight wobble on her pretty chin had all said no.

Now she was facing the screen. Her face awash with Korean rom-com. Eyes slightly bulging, hands carefully folded over her lap, lips parted just a little. He knew then that this was the expression she would have at all the important occasions of her life—first sex with him, wedding, birthdays, parent-teacher meetings, his funeral.

The popcorn burned like an ache in his hand. He made one last move—waved it in the direction of her face—and when she did not notice, put it between his legs, pressed against his crotch. Numb pressure. There is something inadequate about sitting with a box of popcorn between your legs when out on a third date with a girl. He looked at the nice, round space at the end of the armrests. But they had already put their upsized Coke Lights there.

Jason wondered if he should put his hand around her now. Jane was laughing hard at something the lead actor had done to impress the girl on the screen. The girl on the screen was also laughing hard now, playfully punching the actor on his chest. Jason knew that Jane liked the actor. But he was afraid to topple the popcorn between his legs by moving too much.

So he waited. A good movie, like good music or dance, always had moments of quickening pulse followed by little digressions. Like the moments during a dance, when you released the girl and made an elegant turn before you brought her tightly to you again. Three scenes later, the scene he was waiting for came on. The lead actor was talking to his stepmother with the mysterious brain disease. Jason timed his words to fall just before the stepmother asked the actor for an impossible promise, one that would doom his relationship with his girlfriend forever—or until the final scene.

Illustration by Seong Gyu, Yun

All the moviegoers were caught up in this scene, silent and attentive. Jason leaned over to Jane and said in a slightly high-pitched stage whisper, “Great movie. Great to be here with you.”

He meant his words to be a quick squeeze of her hand, a brush of lips on her cheek. But she missed his words. The air-conditioners in these old movie theatres were especially noisy, even if you could not remember hearing them. There was also that continuous low buzz from the screen. And the slight curve of the row of seats could make acoustics tricky.

Jason tried a few other things. Laughing just a little bit too loudly, picking up his now lukewarm drink with just a little too much movement, turning his back in a half arc just a little too pointedly to stare at a middle-aged man speaking hurriedly in a hoarse whisper into his handphone—before settling down to wonder what it was that the stepmother had demanded that made the lead actor go through various hilarious ruses to avoid his girlfriend.

Utterly unable to guess the content of the stepmother’s promise, Jason then focused his attention on the lead actor—checking off his appearances and mannerisms one by one with the efficiency of a surgical strike. Slim, lean body. Check. Extra fair complexion. Check. Don’t they have compulsory military service in South Korea still? The girly SOB must have been a military clerk or something. Probably bought his way out of it or has some serious dis-ease. Shaggy hair over forehead. Check. Puppy dog eyes and luscious, thick pink lips. Broad shoulders, wide as a doorway. And abs! Check. Check. Check. Check.

Jason stared at the lead to the exclusion of everything else in the movie until he felt a painful tingle run up and down his spine. The screen before him dissolved in a light-filled blur and spread out to fill the whole movie theatre, the roof opening up to the night sky above and the entire universe bending down to suck him up, until he too expanded to fill the night sky. He walked through the length and breadth of the city, avoiding the tall, lit-up buildings, as sure-footed as God.

Sometime during the movie Jane sensed that Jason had withdrawn into an eerie non-action and turned to look at him to (A) make sure he had not fallen asleep while on a date with her, which would have been an insult, and (B) she had not lost him forever by ignoring him for the last 57 minutes of the movie. She had still not made up her mind about Jason, and it would be a pity if she lost him to a mere whim of his, the slightest fancy of the male ego. She wanted to offer him the remains of her drink but what she saw as she turned towards him made her eyes shine, her face wet with the night sky and stars. She—a single, star-struck Magi—and he, the object of her obsession.

Jason was still staring at the immense movie screen. Jane turned back to the screen but could not stop herself from turning back to look at Jason every so often, to make sure that he was there, as if he might take off like a giant balloon or suddenly disappear into a cloud of silver light. When the screen credits rolled half-an-hour later, Jane shook Jason by his upper arm, violently pulling him out of his trance. She prodded and pulled him past rows of shopping bags and shoes to the exit. Jason followed her in a daze, holding an almost full box of popcorn and a dull, dead soft drink in the other.

They had to walk through half a dozen long corridors before they emptied to an entirely different floor of the mall. Jane was so breathless when they reached there, her face so shiny that Jason thought she was suddenly sick.

“Are you alright, Jane?”

The same narrowing of her eyes, the same hardness of her high cheekbones and the slight wobble on her pretty chin. She grabbed his arms with both her hands and shook him slightly, like an errant child or a naughty puppy.

“You look exactly like him. OMG.”

She said that exactly as spelled. Oh-emm-gee.

Jason looked at Jane, his expression full of curiosity, and yet, full of compassion. Close to how you would look at a lab mouse before you sliced it. He was about to say something when fast-talking movie-goers surged past him and made him lose his balance. Jane dragged him once again, this time to stand before the long mirrors behind the popcorn counter.

OMG.

The slightly distorted reflection on the thick glass was a marvel to look at. Staring back at Jason from behind the many fingerprints on the glass was the Korean lead actor, holding popcorn and a half-empty cup of Coke.

“How, h-how d-did I?” muttered Jason, unable to find the right words.

He put down the popcorn and the drink on the counter, moving his head this way and that, expecting the vision to be a mere aberration of his contact lens. The reflection stayed the same. Jason then flexed and released his fingers, looking at them intently all the while. He felt the same inside—thank God—although little overwhelmed and unsteady, as if he were wearing gloves or shoes a half size too big.

Jane had already dragged him to the cab stand, holding his hand in the crook of her elbow. Funny that I never noticed the uncanny resemblance, she was saying. Perhaps it is the way you have combed your hair tonight. Your cologne smells marvellous by the way. He took her home by taxi and then took a bus back to his own flat deep in the heartlands.

Jason woke up the morning after the movie expecting his old face to have come back. But the lead actor’s face followed him like a faithful watchdog, curling into place in mirrors and every reflective surface he passed. Jason dug his nose with his finger and scratched his now well-toned abdomen hoping to break the spell with self-induced disgusting behaviour. And yet, the illusion remained. Stark, simple and strong. Leaving Jason to move through his everyday work at the laboratory, fast and slow at the same time. Like an astronaut hurtling through space in his space shuttle yet remarkably leisurely and snug in his space suit.

The few women at work had certainly become more interested. They gathered around his work desk, near the neatly arranged test tubes in their racks and the correctly labelled specimens. They cooed over the lab mice and other furry creatures scurrying around in their aquariums. They blushed whenever Jason said something, their blushes blooming on their faces as deeply and surely as a seduction.

The men noticed the women swooning and came over to bask in his glow. Jason shuffled everyone who came to his work desk, hesitant at first, and then with the practised hand of an expert gambler. Moving them around to just where he wanted them to be. Feeling for the first time the power that eluded him since bio-med school. At last, safe in a cocoon that now had a Korean matinee idol’s face.

Perhaps it was the high-speed effects of the transformation. Or it could have been the chemical changes caused by the singular transformation itself. Jason found it difficult to sleep a substantial amount of time after he had changed to look like the Korean actor. He was also eating irregularly. But he still looked remarkably unchanged even without sleep or food.

Jason started working very long hours in the laboratory, leaving only to meet Jane after her work ended at the bank. Jane was very close to him now. They would walk together to dinner and drinks hand in hand, chattering about her work and his, about nothing in particular. His voice had become low and full of passion. He would perform sudden, slick dance moves and adorable hand gestures as they walked. They started noticing that trees spontaneously blew flower petals on them as they walked, her high cheekbones glowed pink, and her eyes shone under the light of the streetlamps. Sometimes Jane would have tears in her eyes and walk away all alone by herself—arms crossed tightly to her chest—although both of them could not say why.

Jason always came back to work after dropping Jane back home in a cab. The early comers to the laboratory sometimes found him hunched over his work desk—the test tubes and experimental animals arranged around him like bouquets of red, blue, green and white roses—and Jason muttering in his sleep in a language that sounded very much like Korean. They were watching many more movies now: close to each other, but far apart, tight-knit and content. Like electric vehicles at a charging point. Jason would enter into his own thoughts once the movie started and Jane would do the same, letting the simple clash of colours and sound energise them. They did not talk about the movie after it ended, like they used to in the past. He no longer asked her if she wanted popcorn and drinks. He was hardly eating. He would buy a set for both of them to share. The containers would stay untouched at the edge of the armrests for a long time.

On her birthday, Jason asked Jane out to an expensive dinner and a movie. The restaurant once had a Michelin star but the portions of food were too small to satisfy them. Jason was returning to the laboratory after dropping Jane at home when he told the cab driver to pull over at a fast food restaurant, where he ordered half-a-dozen double XL cheeseburgers and extra-large of everything else: fries, sundae and soda.

The food came neatly tucked in very large paper bags.

The waitress smiled at him as she set down his order. “You must be very hungry, sir.”

“Man, I am hungry,” said Jason, scooping up the bags to his chest.


About the author

Sithuraj Ponraj writes fiction in both English and Tamil. His first collection of short stories in Tamil Maariligal [The Invariables] won the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize for Tamil Fiction as well as the 2017 Karikaar Chozan Award in Sri Lanka for Tamil short fiction. His first collection of Tamil poetry Kaatrai Kadanthaai won the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize Merit Award for poetry. His English short fiction and poetry have been published in international journals. His first English poetry collection The Flag Party has been scheduled for publication at the end of 2018.

About the artist

Seong Gyu, Yun is an artist from Korea. He gets ideas from everyday life. He dreams of becoming an illustrator who uses his art to communicate with people. He shares his work on Instagram.

All images belong to the artist. They may not be reproduced without permission.