The Latent Disorder
Jonah stuck his finger in as deep as he possibly could, his frustration traveling as electrical impulses, hopping across synaptic gaps through his neurones all the way into the tip of his pinky. With the pinky in, he wriggled it around while simultaneously shaking his head and pretending to yawn, flexing his jaw. He thought of the pet goldfish he had when he was 5. The shiny, orange creature always did that thing with its mouth, making ’O’s and subsequently shutting his lips, as if he was constantly mouthing ‘wow’ at the vastness of the fish tank he was held in.
The goldfish was a Christmas present from Jonah’s parents, so he tried to take 5 minutes each day to stare at the fish, as if it were the best present he had ever received. This, of course, pleased Jonah’s parents and ignited their hopes of their son following their footsteps in pursuing a career in the field of biology. Both of them were, after all, renowned marine biologists whose names were well respected in the field. Little Jonah pretended not to hear any of their conversations as he continued to stare at the fish. He hated multiple aspects of his pet fish, namely i) the way its scales were shaped like a tiled, orange roof, ii) how its eyes bulged out of its head as if it was straining to stay awake, and iii) the idea of living things having ownership over another living thing. Jonah never named his pet fish. After 32 days and 160 minutes of watching it, Jonah found the goldfish belly-up one morning, and had to feign sadness for a week to convince his parents that he had just experienced a substantial loss in his life.
Twenty years after the death of his only pet, Jonah found himself wondering how he may share some similarities with the disgusting, stupid-looking creature his parents gifted him. He stared at his own reflection in his toothpaste-stained toilet mirror, his pinky still stuck deep into his right ear as he tried to dig out that little bit of soap water that seemed to have entered his ear. He wouldn’t have been aware of its presence, if it had not been for the odd sensation it gave in him, somewhere between his ear and his cheekbone, when he shook his head in attempt to dry his hair. He wondered how fishes listened to the world around them with all the water particles reducing the speed at which sound travelled. Did his pet fish even have ears? He couldn’t recall.
A vague memory of his teen years surfaced, where his mother would gently remind him to ‘allow the water to flow out from your ear canal naturally’, because ‘digging your ear will only push it further inwards.’ The memory stopped there as he couldn’t recall whether he decided to obey his mother back then. But now, now that the water was trapped somewhere inside him, he simply couldn’t just wait for it to flow. It isn’t anywhere as disruptive as losing your eyesight or breaking a bone, but it created enough distress for Jonah’s mind to be temporarily consumed by it. It took a while before he snapped out of his nearly habitual manner of digging his ear. He rubbed his thumb against the surface of his pinky to feel if it managed to at least come in contact with the water in his ear. His pinky was dry.
As his phone’s notification rang for his daily 9 o’clock morning news briefing, Jonah could only hear it clearly with his left ear, his right ear still muffled with the water acting as a barrier between him and his surroundings. He tilted his head to the right and hit the left side of his head — hard, but found no success in emptying his ear. Hitting his head made him feel worse, as he could hear the soapy water gurgling in his middle ear. He dismissed the 9am briefing, as he didn’t want to listen to it with only one good ear. He had to find a way to solve this before heading to work. His mind raced as he subconsciously went about his daily routine — shaving the little stubble of a moustache he had, putting on his clothes, spraying perfume on mirroring ends of his neck and wrists. Beneath his steadfast pace of getting prepared, his mind was already on its way down a spiral of catastrophes — what if the soap got into his brain? What if the germs in the water gave him an ear infection, would he have to see a doctor? What if he couldn’t hear his colleagues properly at work today, should he tell them the truth? One outcome or another seemed equally undesirable, Jonah thought as he heaved a heavy sigh. He put on his only white shirt that didn’t have a stain on it, and pulled his loose-fitting pants up before habitually putting a fist in the space left at his waist, just to see if he lost any more weight. Jonah had always been averaged sized, with an average height, average looks, average mind. Now, he was underweight. Everything else remained average.
He left the house without eating breakfast. He had an appointment with a buyer across town, 45 minutes away by train. He took large strides toward the subway station just two streets away from his apartment, his mind still consumed by that little bit of soapy water in his ear. He could feel it slushing in his ear as he walked, he could hear it, almost see it, its waves slapping against his eardrum as he walked. It was hard to resist sticking his pinky in, but Jonah didn’t want to risk making things worse. He considered walking the remaining distance with his head tilted to the right for gravity to work its ways, but decided against it when he saw a neighbour coming his direction. ’Nice weather!’, his neighbour, a lady in her mid-fifties, commented. She was dressed in her usual manner, something Jonah learnt to stop staring at. Red pumps, green fishnet stockings that wrapped her legs so tightly you could see skin oozing out of it, a white turtleneck dress with a pink fur coat over it. Perhaps it would be less odd if Jonah didn’t also have the knowledge that this was how she dressed to go to the market every day, where she would purchase her groceries and stay home for the rest of the day.
Jonah nodded with a light smile and picked up his pace, as if walking faster would remove the image he caught of her green stockings. She was about his mother’s age. Jonah wondered if she knew anything about how to get water out of one’s ear. Upon securing a seat in the subway, Jonah now had all the mental energy and space to continue figuring how he should deal with this problem. He scrutinised the few people in the car, not recognising any of their faces. That gave him relief, knowing that whatever he did wouldn’t matter to these people. He began with moving his head around, pretending to stretch his neck. He stopped at a spot, where he swore he could feel the water tilting toward his outer ear. Just then, he had the most brilliant idea. He placed his right palm over his ear, pressing tightly against it to form some sort of vacuum, where the water would be sucked out when he released his palm. Except that it didn’t. Jonah tried a few more times, disregarding the weird glances he received from the lady sitting directly across him. He frowned. The suction didn’t seem to have enough strength to get the water out.
As he tried to think of other ways, he found his mind momentarily distracted from the soapy water coursing through his eardrum as he recalled again, the pet goldfish he had. He had realised that it was Christmas eve, which meant that tomorrow would mark the 20th anniversary of his pet. He wondered how a 20 year old goldfish would look like. Despite having hated the pet as a child, he couldn’t deny the little company it gave him. Being the only child of the family did leave him feeling isolated every now and then, especially when his parents started on one of their conversations about sea urchins or protoplasmic membrane. The train began to screech as it slowed down, arriving at the station Jonah was due to get off. The light commotion that went on as people prepared to leave the train reminded him of the soapy water in his ear, as one side of his being felt like it was submerged in a pool while the other side was ready to get off the train. He couldn’t help but wonder if he would feel better with both ears clogged. It was the imbalanced hearing that caused him greater frustration, he thought. As he took the exit headed to the apartment building that he was hoping to sell off to an interested customer, he subconsciously began to pump his right palm against his ear again, hoping to resolve this issue so that he could be at his best with the customer. Customers. He had an appointment with a newly married couple, the wife expecting a child in a few months time. They wanted a cosy-sized apartment suited for three, as they didn’t plan to have more children. Get your child a pet at least, Jonah wanted to say. Instead, he made reservations for a home-viewing at an apartment block he thought would fit their needs.
Jonah was one street away from the apartment, and ten minutes early. He came to a halt at a quiet alleyway, glancing around him for any familiar faces he might encounter. None. He hit his palm against the top left of his skull again, lighter first, then with greater strength. The water stubbornly, playfully, tauntingly — Jonah wasn’t sure if the water had any consciousness or intention, rippled in his ear. Fuck, Jonah muttered under his breath, hitting his head a little harder. Any time now, the water would find its way out of his ear and he would experience a sense of euphoria from being able to hear once again. After what seemed like at least 50 hits, Jonah gave up. The water wasn’t going anywhere. He picked himself up, tidied his shirt and checked his reflection on the glass door of a barber. Again, he strode with purpose, shoulders straight, chest out, his friendly face plastered over his frustration as he entered the apartment for sale. He arrived just 5 minutes before his customers did.
Henry and Kathleen Brown reminded Jonah of the couples he used to spy on, observe might be the better word, when he was in university. Playful, lively, loving, happy, Jonah didn’t have enough positive vocabulary to describe them. They were full of life and laughter, brightening the room from the minute they entered it. There was just something about that untroubled, easy-going persona that reminded Jonah of the upper class privileges. Such people probably never had to go through any significant hardships in their lives, which would explain how untainted and sparkly they were in a world of tyranny. Fortunately, Jonah has had enough experience with these types of people, these simple, rich couples that cared more about the ‘vibes’ and the ‘aesthetics’ than the practicalities of a property. He approached them with that in mind, striking gold as Kathleen’s eyes widened at the ‘aesthetically pleasing marble cabinets’ that were built into the kitchen. The couple followed behind him with the occasional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they toured the 2,000 square feet condominium. After they made a round, the couple requested for a minute to measure the dimensions of the master bedroom, muttering something about bed frames that Jonah couldn’t care less about. He smiled politely and gestured for them to go ahead, while he stayed in the kitchen.
Something at the corner had caught his eye. An actual plunger, still in its plastic wrap, lay oddly by itself next to the kitchen sink. He contemplated sticking it onto his ear. Surely it would create enough pressure to suck the water out. Maybe even enough to suck his brains out. Perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea. He stood still for a while, listening to the faraway voices from the couple with his one good ear. Before he realised what he was doing, he began hitting his head again, compulsively, as if it would finally work this time. Perhaps gravity on the 27th floor could do more than it did at ground level. Indeed, it did seem like the water reacted more as he hit his head. Harder, harder. The water was coming out, he was sure of it. He turned to face the reflection of himself on the glass panel of the oven and let out a light laugh at how stupid he looked. His head began to hurt from all the hitting, but the water refused to give way. One more look at the plunger, and Jonah decided. He swiftly removed the plastic from its tip and assessed the cleanliness of it to ensure it had never been used. Lifting the plunger to his face, he took a sniff to be sure. It smelt just like he expected to be, rubbery and new. With the assurance that it had never been in a toilet bowl, Jonah stuck the plunger onto his ear gingerly, worried that it might actually create too much pressure if he pushed too hard. The plunger clung onto the side of his face, barely, as the surface of his side profile wasn’t exactly flat. He pushed it further onto his ear, letting out a grunt as an odd sensation tingled through his body with the alien object stuck onto his face. Just then, he looked up into the ridiculous reflection of a well-dressed man with a plunger stuck onto the right side of his face. Behind him were two other faces, with relatively more shocked and alarmed expressions on their faces. Kathleen’s shrieks filled the room, loud enough that Jonah’s water and plunger-clogged ear could hear it semi-clearly. Before he could even say anything, the couple was already on the way out of the unit. Jonah could hear the sound of Henry frantically fumbling with the door. He extracted the plunger off the surface of his skin, running to the entrance to explain himself to the couple. He was greeted by an open door and an empty hallway. Fuck, he muttered. He hit his head again, praying that the water had at least left his ear. No luck there, either. Fuck! He threw the plunger onto the ground and paced around the room, unsure of what to do.
5 minutes later, his phone rang. It was from his real estate company. Jonah picked up the call, habitually placing the phone against his right ear before cursing under his breath and shifting it to his left. ‘Jonah.’ The male voice on the other end sounded familiar, probably one of his colleagues. ‘It’s Marcus.’ His supervisor.
‘Yeah, I’m here.’
‘Look, Jonah. I completely understand.’
‘What?’ Jonah had no idea what this was about.
‘It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. We all know about your parents’ accident, and we see how hard that can be for you. Please, Jonah. Please seek help.′
‘Yeah, um, thanks for your concern. But what is this about, exactly?’
‘It’s okay to feel pain, Jonah. You’re grieving. You should see someone, a shrink, maybe. I can hook you up with someone if you need me to.’ Jonah wondered if his supervisor was using *his* water-clogged ear on his side of the phone, because he didn’t seem to hear Jonah’s question.
‘Just take the day — no, take the week off, Jonah. You need it.’ Marcus continued. ‘I’ll see you around soon. Take care.’ Silence.
The silence had never felt more comfortable. Silence, and stillness, were the only ways Jonah could be in to forget about his water-clogged ear. He stood upright, still in his salesman posture. The whole company knew about his parents’ accident. The news, probably. His mom and dad were on a work trip over the weekend at Miami, where they were supposed to be out in the ocean hunting for samples of a rare skate fish. They never got out of the town, however, as the new research centre they were in collapsed on them as a result of negligent, unaccounted infrastructure failures. The field of marine biology lost 8 of their top researchers that morning. Jonah lost the only family he had. The news reached him about three hours after his parents’ death, presumably because the hospital was flooded with injured researchers and students that required more attention than dead bodies, or the family members of dead bodies. Family member. He was their only family member.
That happened on a Sunday. Jonah went to work on Monday as usual, because he didn’t know what else he could do. The bodies were scheduled to arrive in town within a week’s time, but even then, Jonah didn’t know what to do. Did his parents want a funeral? He could recall his father muttering something about his ashes being scattered into the ocean. Perhaps they would’ve liked to be scattered in the same ocean as the skate fishes that they were supposed to be looking for. How was Jonah supposed to know what their wishes were? He could barely determine what he felt about their deaths. The only thing he could recall about his parents were how invested they were in their career. Jonah’s rerouting into a career in real estate came as a huge blow to the family, for his parents dedicated years of their lives trying to get him interested in marine life. Perhaps it was good that they died in a marine research centre. Perhaps it was what they would’ve liked, dying together surrounded by specimens of rare aquatic creatures. Perhaps Jonah’s should’ve followed their footsteps.
Jonah snapped back into reality as he heard noises coming from outside the apartment. He realised how tensed his shoulders were and slumped down in defeat, recalling the horrified faces of the couple. He stepped out of the unsold apartment and locked the door behind him, an inexplicable sense of soreness building up in his chest. Was it the loss of a sale? Was it the loss of his hearing? Or was it the loss of both his parents? Jonah couldn’t seem to determine what he felt. His trip back home seemed quicker than the trip to the town. The strangers around him seemed to travel with direction and purpose, taking large strides as they made their way home to their families, their children, their pets. It was Christmas eve, after all. Sounds of Christmas carols filled Jonah’s left ear as he walked down the street to his own apartment.
‘Jonah! Merry Christmas!’ A rosy-cheeked, plump male in his forties popped up in front of his face, right outside his unit. He looked up, flashing a winning smile he often used with his clients. ‘Merry Christmas to you too, Noah.’ Noah has been his next-door neighbour for the past two years, where he lived with his wife and two young children. A little girl, about 5 or 6, stuck her head out from behind Noah, grinning happily despite having no front teeth. Jonah leaned down to greet her, applying his charm to the child who reminded him of himself when he was a kid. He used to get excited about Christmas even from a month before, for that time of the year was the only time his parents had something else to talk about other than fishes.
Christmas used to be when Jonah was allowed to choose decorations from the store, where he always bought dangly, golden bells that he would hang on the Christmas tree at home. His mother would prepare hand-written greeting cards, inviting her colleagues over to the house for drinks a few nights before Christmas. On the night itself, Jonah would lock himself in his room before midnight, as he knew to allow his parents the space and time to prepare the gifts that they would tell him came from Santa in the wee hours of dawn. Jonah had always been a thoughtful child, never cruel enough to burst his parents bubble. Perhaps that was why they held such high hopes for him to follow them into their career.
Jonah heaved a large sigh as he plopped himself onto his bed, his room dark from the blackout curtains that blocked any sources of light. The only ray of light came from his gap in his bedroom door, which led to the hallway. He didn’t have the time to buy a Christmas tree this year. He assumed his parents would have asked him over to their old home where he grew up in, to stay over for Christmas. They still bought him gifts even after he moved out. He still held a huge place in their hearts, perhaps just a little less than their job. He used to hold a huge place in their hearts. Changing the grammatical terms after a person’s death is hard, he thought.
He stripped down to his boxers and laid his head on his pillow, shaking it a little to check that the water was still in his ear. It was. He heaved another long sigh, feeling his heavy body sinking into the bed. He laid still as he stared at the ceiling, belly-up and defeated, just like his dead pet fish.
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