Beggars and Choosers by Claire Chee

Dec 30, 2019

Content warning: stillbirth

Singapore in 2022, just beyond the brink of discussions about preventing global warming, is hotter and wetter than it has always been. Its efficient citizens are humbled by the ever-present threat of daily thunderstorms that flood the streets and lap at already elevated doorways. Two doorways are of note in this story: one, bone-dry on the 80th floor of Hamilton, and another in Block 12 of the government housing estate on Holland Avenue that is gently covered in a thin layer of moss. 

Ken’s eyes followed the metronome of his windshield wipers, fingers tapping the black horse on the centre of his steering wheel. He was facing a set of metal doors, watching them reflect flashes of the indigo sky in their dulled steel. The garage lift eventually ground to a halt as it pushed itself forward into its final position. The doors opened to a penthouse decorated in an immaculate blend of neutral Japanese colour and polished Scandinavian wood. The smell of a freshly cooked dinner surrounded the car, eager to greet him. Ken sighed, turned off the ignition, and stepped into his home. God, he thought, I just can’t take this anymore.

He thought it because he knew how it sounded. There was nothing new about having too much and feeling like you had nothing at all. As the main air conditioner manufacturers of Singapore, the family business surged as the city sweltered. Every family member lived at a minimum of ten floors above street level, the driest yet most financially liquid households. Children are a luxury many can’t afford but have anyway. There were no luxuries Ken couldn’t afford, but he didn’t have a child.

His wife, Cynthia, had been diagnosed with severe endometriosis during their engagement six years ago. Children were not impossible, but unlikely, and somewhere along the way, they had stopped trying. During the time their friends were having children, Ken and Cynthia spent their copious earnings on themselves, on safari instead of on baby duty, wearing designer clothes instead of wearing thin. Cynthia took to this life immensely well, basking in her daily routine of exercise, shopping, and household delegation, her spirits constantly lifting as her girlfriends commiserated about things sagging. Ken, on the other hand, began to feel as if the years were no longer zipping by like the gazelles they had seen in South Africa, but instead starting to resemble the squelching, dragging slowness of slugs in their garden.

Cynthia didn’t want children anymore, and Ken didn’t know if he could be indignant. They had tried in vitro fertilisation twice, once each time his brother had had a child. Their furniture was too nice now, Cynthia always said, too expensive for children.

“Also,” she added, “I like my body the way it is.”

Cynthia then went on – as she tended to – about how the world was overpopulated anyway. It was a common conversation, one they often had when she was drunk. One night, after visiting their fourth house during the Lunar New Year, she had ungracefully made her way to the couch, mumbling how the only practical use of a child would be for procuring a larger inheritance before promptly falling asleep. Ken’s mind hadn’t stopped whirring since. 

“So, about what you said a week ago,” Ken said after dinner, watching Cynthia comb her hair at the sink. 

“Oh man, what did I say this time?” she asked, snorting slightly. Ken pouted and waited for her to notice. Cynthia slid onto the bed beside him and prodded the drooping corners of his mouth. 

“Hey, what is it? Don’t frown – you’re going to get wrinkles.”

“I just think you’re right,” Ken sighed. “We are at a disadvantage in terms of the … distribution of wealth, so to speak. My parents have hinted that they’re giving more to my brother because of the girls.”

Cynthia’s brows came together sharply, then softened quickly. Cocking one up, she said, “And? What would you like me to do about that?”

“I just wanted to know if you’d be … open to trying another round of –”

“No.” Cynthia looked like she was about to cry for a second, before her irises refocused with a dark, dry intensity. “How about this – I’m not going to have more than one child, and the only way one child trumps your brother’s two is if that child is a boy. So, if you can find a way to ensure we have a son, then yes, I’d be open to it.”

With that, Cynthia smirked, kissed Ken on the cheek, and went back to the bathroom to finish her skincare routine. Ken grabbed his laptop and began to search. 

In one of the many cafés in the heart of Holland Village, Liu sipped his flat white and made a face. 

“Bad beans,” he muttered, with authority. He wondered if anyone around him could tell that this was only the fourth coffee he’d ever had in his life. When he saw that other people seemed to be enjoying their drinks, he retracted his opinion. Liu scrolled absentmindedly on his phone, catching himself up on the news. 

Zhao JianHui, the Chinese scientist who pioneered the research of genetically editing babies, continues to protest the decision to shut down his laboratory outside Rice University. The International Conference on Gene Editing and Gene Therapy held in 2018 allowed scientists to voice their concerns regarding its unconscionable nature, and concluded that it was a violation of moral and ethical standards. JianHui was let go from his post in Houston following the conference, but is now vocally demanding that the topic be revisited. The protest began last week and continues to take place during office hours from 9 am-5 pm. More as the story unfolds.

Liu made a face again. He paid for his bad (or good) coffee and left the café, waving at the pearly smiles of expatriate children and watching the afternoon sun embrace their blonde hair like a long-lost twin. A nice neighbourhood, he thought. 

The corridor to his apartment faced away from the sun and was blocked by other high-rise buildings. His apartment was chilly most of the day, except at sunset when a short window of intense light flooded his living room. Liu didn’t mind it much – better dark, cold, and slightly damp than homeless. He took off his shoes and stepped up into the house, nearly slipping on the moss, as he always did. Ping was sitting in the living room, her feet propped up on a pile of laundered clothes, her mouth pathetically subjected to the snores thundering out of her. This wasn’t why he didn’t like girls, but it definitely didn’t help. Liu coughed loudly, and Ping woke with a start.

“Oh, it’s just you. How was the café?” she asked in Mandarin what they spoke to each other.

“It was alright. Did you see the news? Zhao JianHui is protesting for his research to be approved – we’d better stop our plans before it becomes a whole thing again.”

Ping’s face, previously soft with sleep, grew serious. Nodding silently, she started to fold the laundry. 

Ken had spoken to every fertility specialist in the city and promised inordinate sums of money, only to be told it simply wasn’t possible to guarantee the sex of the baby. It had been a week of disappointments, and in his exasperation, he started watching the news.

Genetically edited babies! He began a new wave of internet searches, his hopes cresting and falling as each link proved fake or related to the protest. About fourteen search pages deep, he came across a Singapore-based forum from 2020, where parents were discussing gynaecologists. As he trawled through the discussion, he noticed a post that had gone unacknowledged by the rest. 

Cannot have random? Come to #04-04 Coronation Cube, WE CAN HELP!  

He understood why no one bothered; it looked like a bot had written it. According to the map on his phone, Coronation Cube wasn’t far from his place.

There was a sign taped to the door of #04-04 Coronation Cube saying they were closed indefinitely. Ken let out an audible groan as he shook the impotent rubber chain that held the doors shut. A bright pink post-it note floated to the ground, its aged adhesive succumbing to Ken’s vigour. 

Liu, tried you at 12 Holland Ave but you weren’t there. Call me ASAP. 92465454

Grinning at his sudden good fortune, Ken made his way to 12 Holland Ave. 

He rang the doorbell, lifting one foot to rest on the stair that promptly slid right off. Finally, a man not much younger than himself, opened the door.

“Are you Liu? I’m Ken. I came here from your Coronation Cube shop. Can I come in?”

Liu stared at the extremely well-dressed man before him and didn’t seem to notice himself saying yes. Inside, Ping poured tea while Ken explained how he had found Liu: from hearing about Zhao’s research on the news to seeing their services advertised in a forum for Singaporean parents. He asked whether Liu performed a sort of IVF treatment or surrogacy system, and what his rates of success and probability were. Liu sipped his tea with shaking hands. 

“Well, um, yes – we help with requests for baby to come certain way,” Liu said, in equally shaky English. In a dark corner, Ping’s forehead furrowed. Their business was supposed to be over. Sensing this, Liu added, “But very complicated! I fix the egg and Ping carry it. Very expensive – lots of risk also!”

“So, kind of a mix of IVF and surrogacy, very interesting. Can you fix its gender? Do you use that tool – what’s it called? The uh … CRISPR? That thing that allows genome editing? I heard about it on the news. Also, money is no object.”

Liu could only nod his head. The truth burned inside him. The other two people he had serviced had been significantly less knowledgeable about the subject. As such, they were willing to sign away the right to being present during the birth of a decidedly unedited baby, carried to term by Ping, whose DNA was simply used in place of the mother’s. Multiple births ran in Ping’s family. She popped two or three out at a time, giving the duo some leeway in choosing which to present as the result, depending on what had been requested. The leftover ones were donated to good families. Any immediately obvious physical dissimilarities were explained away as part of the gene-editing process. It was a heist that hinged on temporality, that had to end with them leaving the country before the children grew up too much. It was not a neat plan, but it had never claimed to be.

Best friends from childhood, Ping and Liu were both chronically single and poor, unable to purchase subsidised housing as married couples would. She’d had one accidental pregnancy as a teen with extremely mild to no symptoms, and bounced back almost immediately. Liu had hatched his scheme following the initial news of Zhao’s research, and she had jumped at the chance. Ping had not been coerced into this position. She, like Liu, wanted to get rich, and harnessed fierce ambivalence about her body to do so. Their marriage put a roof over their heads, and their plan put food on the table. They could bring whoever they wanted into their beds. 

“Okay, listen – will you help us? Please? I can pay, look!’ Ken slapped a fat roll of bills on the sofa cushion between them, and a small cloud of dust lifted from the worn leather.

Liu’s eyes grew to the size of melons, and he knew Ping’s did too. Was this how much they could have been charging? He found Ping in the shadows and met her gaze. One last time. For so much money. Yes? 

“Yes. We reopen Coronation and you come next week. Here’s phone number; call to make appointment, please. Thank you, sir,” Liu said.

“Excellent!” Ken stood up, shaking Liu’s hand so firmly that all the bones in his body seemed to clatter.

After Ken left the dingy apartment, Liu stood in the doorway for a while. Ping came over and gave him a short, sweaty hug from behind before whistling her way back into the apartment. The room dripped in gold as the sun began to set.

Nine months later, things were going well. Cynthia, happy that she wouldn’t have to go through the pregnancy herself, hadn’t raised too many questions; both had gone along to the Coronation Cube premises to discuss the process, reassured by its blindingly white interior and surgical smell. Their specimens were collected by Liu, comfortably entrusted to a man in scrubs. Attending ultrasound appointments were off limits under the pretence that it made Ping uncomfortable, but Liu kept Ken updated with regular texts and soothing, photoshopped sonograms after each one. 

Their marriage was also thriving, as they were swept up in the fun of preparing for a new baby. During the baby shower that Cynthia threw for herself, Ken watched her pour water for his parents, and he smiled. He felt that he was the one who had married upwards. Cynthia was less wealthy than Ken, but it wasn’t hard to be. Still, their relationship was very real, their bond much deeper than his pockets. They had met online and discovered their mutual love of Taiwanese romantic comedies and French food. She was outgoing, hilarious, and pretty enough to be neither. Cynthia was the only person who could massage Ken’s migraines away, and his was the sole opinion she asked for before any decision. Ken had eventually proposed on a trip in Taipei as they lit paper lanterns, writing ‘Marry me?’ on his side instead of wishes for the year, turning it to face her as they lifted it into the sky. The corners of Ken’s upturned mouth twitched as he indulged the fond reverie amidst their loved ones. 

His phone buzzed then, face down on the coffee table, but he was too busy looking at his wife to notice.

Liu’s feet tapped rapidly on the linoleum floor of the hospital waiting room. It was taking longer than usual. Ping never let him be in the room when she gave birth. For someone indifferent about the use of her womb, she was curiously self-conscious. The stakes were high on this one. Ping was only pregnant with one baby this time. The ultrasounds had said it was a boy, but anything could happen. The pregnancy itself hadn’t been abnormal; in fact, the baby had bothered her less than usual. Ping’s babies were usually kickers. Using the Lunar calendar, pregnancy lasted ten months, not nine. The baby was early, but Liu didn’t think that was much cause for concern. Perhaps it was a good thing, given the pressure of this final con. The sooner they could get out of the country, the better. As the clock ticked on, Liu felt a pang of uncertainty. They would have been in the clear. Maybe he shouldn’t have accepted Ken’s offer. With only one shot this time, botching this would add complications to say the least. Ping hadn’t objected, but maybe he should’ve known better. It was a lot of money though. He shook his head to dislodge the unproductive thoughts. 

A lanky surgeon called his name, and Liu shot out of his chair. The surgeon gestured for him to follow, and they walked down a short hallway to the private ward that Ken had paid for. Liu got ready to text him the news, but outside the door, the surgeon stopped him.

“Mr Liu, before you go in, I’m afraid I have terrible news. Your wife has had a stillbirth.” He continued to elaborate on the complications with the placenta, but Liu was already pushing through the door.

Liu saw Ping holding a bundle of cloth, glistening with sweat but dry-eyed. “It was a boy,” she rasped, sounding like her throat had been wrung out.

Liu’s rubber soles felt gummed to the floor by the heat of his discomposure. Walking towards her, he was frustrated with how slowly he was moving, but his feet were peeling off the floor from heel to toe and would not quicken. When he finally got to her, he crouched by her bedside, searching her face, but Ping was staring straight ahead. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to look at the child, so he looked down at his phone, fingers still poised to contact Ken. Ping turned to him and he met her eyes. They were still dry, but Liu saw that something had been broken. 

Did anyone have to justify why they wanted a child? Ken didn’t think so. He thought about his daily routine at work for the family business, a job he had tripped into after living aimlessly after college. He had never been exceptional at anything, having had enough money to try everything and not enough discipline to focus on any. This would finally be something he could care about unequivocally, a job worth doing, a port in lonely storms. Something that both solidified ties to the past and cultivated something for the future. With Cynthia. Wonderful Cynthia. For a moment, he hadn’t known if they were going to make it. As much as he loved her, the tedium of their life had left a bad taste in his mouth that had dripped down his throat daily. But now there was a reason for him to stay. For her, too? Maybe. And how special their child would be! A product of determination and love, not just happenstance. They were so lucky to exist in a time where this was possible. He would teach his baby that the only people who believe in bad luck are those that never take control. The world was literally brimming with hope. He had asked, and he had received. Ken felt his heart swell with pride, practically straining to join the helium balloons that decorated the living room. He watched the hot rain fall outside as cool, conditioned air blew gently around him. His phone buzzed again. He hoped it was Liu – he had a good feeling about this.

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