On the second night after they moved in, he nudged the bolster.
“Why do you sleep with this thing?”
She shrugged. “Done it my whole life. Everyone I know does, back home.”
He reached for her and groaned at the bolster, clumsy and inert between them. She kicked the pillow off her side of the bed, slipped her jumper over her head and went to him.
He came home early with a back sprain, after handling an injured 15-foot Burmese python at the surgery. His stories from work both enthralled and horrified her, the exotic animals that were rescued to be healed of their many ailments from their long journey here.
Getting the snakes in was just one problem, he explained. Once the snakes found their way into the wild, they had to find a mate quickly or they were unlikely to survive.
She watched him shift and turn uncomfortably. In the middle of the night, she mumbled soothing words, slid the bolster pillow from her warm embrace into his arms, her sleepy toe gently guiding his stiff legs into position.
“Are you sure you don’t mind me taking it again?” he asked the following night.
“Don’t be silly. I’m glad it’s helping,” she said, patting the pillow absently, leaving a sharp indent.
He was feeling well enough to put the remaining boxes away while she spent the afternoon in the kitchen.
“I’m going out to pick up some wine. Need anything from the store? An extra salad maybe?”
She shook her head, shredding kaffir lime leaves.
“I am making four dishes. Surely that’s enough?”
His mum arrived early at a quarter to six, two expensive bottles of chilled pinot grigio in a buffalo leather wine bag. They had met over reunion dinner in February. She had sat mutely next to him the whole time, not taking her eyes off the aunty across her, who waved balletic broken wrists and glittering pomegranate nails every time she spoke. She sounded like the blond, blue-eyed newscasters on TV and insisted on being called Barb.
He told her after that his mum had been a television actress way before. There were still boxes of her old tapes at home, grainy episodes of Barb as the lone Asian co-worker, Barb in a recurring role as the frazzled local takeaway owner and Barb as the doctor frowning at the lead actor’s X-rays.
As she fetched a wine glass, her eyes followed Barb slowly taking in the apartment. She felt herself shrink as Barb’s eye pierced through the assortment of their newly joint possessions.
The early evening light bleached the fabric of her second-hand sofa and cast a forlorn shadow on the coffee table with a wobbly leg they’d dragged home from a Please Take pile. Her large fortune cat figurine grinned childishly, next to the stack of jarringly sophomoric textbooks and a thumbed paperback copy of the Oxford English dictionary.
“Lovely,” Barb sipped, referring either to the wine or the freebie Malaysian calendar she had tacked on the fridge.
“So, final year at school, is that right?”
“Yes, just the thesis to go.”
“I suppose you’ll need a partner visa after that, with the state of the job market?”
She stopped slicing and looked up, unsure.
The front door unlocked, and she exhaled as he entered. He exchanged hugs with his mum, and unloaded takeaway bags on the kitchen counter, tipping over her tiny bowls and saucers of chopped herbs and aromatics and measured spoons of different spices.
“Just some extras,” he said quickly. He didn’t meet her eye.
She bit her lip, peering at the containers of glistening roast pork and duck, dumplings already misshapen from the trip. She turned off the stove and flinched as the bubbling pots dissolved to a simmer.
They worked through the takeaway spread for dinner, picking at a bowl of curry as a side. Barb licked daintily at a small spoonful of rendang and cleared her throat.
“You know… you probably could audition for MasterChef.”
She put down her spoon and at their furtive exchange of relieved, grateful smiles, murmured into her glass, “They’re so far along now they’ll let anyone on the show.”
After Barb left, he hugged her tightly, breathing sorry sorry sorry into her hair.
Her dream was filled with snakes. Native brown ones, slithering over caramel-coloured pythons in stupor, lost and incapacitated in the wild.
She had wrung herself awake before the imminent delivery of venom, shaken and breathless, to find him in front of her, his snores rattling assuredly.
Gently, she uncurled his slack arms from around her bolster pillow. He countered with a jolt, his limbs springing taut as he tightened his grasp and turned the other way.
She placed one foot over his back and fingered the skin over the muscle that had succumbed to the Burmese python. She tapped once with a socked toe and with just enough force, dispatched a kick. He recoiled in pain, still unconscious and released the captive.
The familiar softness against her body stilled her, sharpened her fatigue. She pulled the pillow in tight. Serpentine legs fastened over and under, she closed her eyes, ready to strike.