Wednesday, March 15, 2017

You Can See Everything

I step into the first cabin of the subway train because it will be the first to pull into the station I'm heading to, and therefore I will be one of the first on the escalators, and among the first to make the transfer to another line. I do this because I am on my way to work and can't afford any delays.

It's the school holidays, but the cabin is not so crowded. All the seats are taken but almost no one else is standing, so I go over to the window alcove at the nose of the train, which is large enough to hold two people. I only want to lean against a flat surface for the duration of the ride. Like an adult I look at my phone screen, not out the window into the yawning black, or at the other people in the cabin.

At the next station I gain company: a small, perspiring human - his cardholder flapping on a blue nylon lanyard - flings himself into the alcove, almost colliding with my shoulder bag. I look at the people who've just boarded but can't identify who's responsible for him. Every face is blank, or turned away. The boy is just tall enough to rest his chin on the recessed window ledge, which surely must be covered in a billion squirming bacteria from strangers' hands and elbows.

You can see everything from here, he announces to me, or no one. Everything!

The train starts to move again and rapt, he settles the weight of his noggin (strange how I never realised children have such big heads) on the ledge, cushioning it on the backs of his folded hands, as if settling in for a long television programme or bedtime story. I turn to look out the window and all I see is the slowly building darkness as we pull out from the lighted station and gather speed.

I have my headphones on, so for me our tunnel flight is hushed, silent as a video with the sound turned down. Chilly Gonzales is playing The Tearjerker Returns, an instrumental piece from Room 29, his collaboration with Jarvis Cocker. On this track the piano echoes the tentative accusation of the earlier piece, turning it wrong side up to reveal a plaintive tenderness where Cocker was ironic, knowing.

I listen to this tender piano, and strings like deep sea-water, watching the blackness fly by. Next to me my pint-sized companion in the alcove is quiet, aglow in his own dream: captaining a vessel in deep space, perhaps, zooming past galaxies, or descending to the mystery of the ocean floor, unimaginable pressure and creatures on the other side of the reinforced window. For him the train heads towards the future, where exhilarating possibilities set the darkness aflame with excitement, and there is not yet a destination.

In contrast I am older, and I listen to pretentious piano music, and I am going to work, and I only see the inevitable terminus at the end of the line. That last station is no mystery, just resignation. The tunnel is not outer space or the Mariana Trench, only the fast-decaying result of machinery and toil. And you and I are not explorers or astronauts, or even half as brave and intrepid. Just grown-ups going to work, waiting for a seat, turning away from the hypnotic dark to stare at our lit phone screens. We do this because after too long, the darkness becomes dangerous. It leaves children alone, kindly, but it swallows adults whole, makes us sad and unable to pay our mortgages on time.

You can see everything from here, said the boy. I almost did - but then the music ended, the train arrived at my stop, and in my haste to be first I left the alcove to him without looking back at all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

La La Land

I went with a friend to watch La La Land and when the film ended and the lights came up, I looked over at her to see that she was crying. I was about to laugh at her when I heard sniffles on my left: the woman next to me was crying too. I looked down the row - about every two seats there were feminine tears being dabbed away, while the men merely looked blank - or at their phones.

"Why are you crying?" I asked my friend.

She, incredulously: "It was an unhappy ending! They didn't stay together!"

Well, yeah.

It was beautiful to look at, it was charming and moving and clever in parts. I enjoyed it. But if I were going to shed tears it wouldn't have been about the failed romance, it would have been if one of them hadn't made it. As it was, Ryan Gosling got his bar and Emma Stone got her career - a happy enough ending all round, in my books. (Although honestly, I didn't buy her having a baby so damn fast.) A far more realistic version would have had one, or both, of them packing up to go home and take a job in an insurance office.

But then, I watched it from a different perspective. I think very few people in that cinema know what it's like to still be trying to make it, to lead the terribly lonely life of a creative type - to lie awake at night questioning your life decisions, worrying about money and retirement and the future, to fend off well-meaning relatives and their raised eyebrows - "Are you still... - ?" To watch peers with more resources, or freedom, go abroad to succeed, win grants and residencies and publication contracts. And to live like this in Singapore, where to be creative is already to be a stranger to 95 per cent of the population - the kind of stranger parents warn their children about becoming: "Don't be stupid and become artist ah, better go study accountancy..." You think it's a comedy stereotype? I teach their children. I hear what their parents say, sometimes first-hand.

Here is my romance: I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I would quit my job and sit in front of my laptop and stay awake long into the waning night counting my worries like rosary beads without thinking twice. I would write and delete six, seven, eight drafts and keep going. I'd bite my tongue every time a relative asked if I was "still" teaching tuition, every time an old teacher I bumped into said - with a genuine note of sadness in their voice - "Oh, but you had so much potential..."

This is love, isn't it? Maybe not the obvious kind, the one that made the audience cry. This is the pursuit of the unknown, a floating ideal that's always just around the corner - a whisper travelling through the air that no one else hears: don't give up on me. It could still happen. Please let it happen.

I didn't cry at La La Land, but I'll wager that I'm a bigger, more foolish romantic than anyone else there that night at the cinema.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Bleak Year, Be An Animal

Got the year-end blues. It gets worse every year, even as I cook and bake and shop and giftwrap like I'm getting paid, plus overtime.

So I'm taking a cue from my dog Dmitri, known throughout the neighbourhood for being an unfriendly little bastard. I say little, but the neighbours pushing their children in strollers call him big, as in "see, big dog, careful ah, wait he bite you". He hasn't bitten anyone, although he once snapped at a little boy who snuck up behind him and grabbed his ass. The boy cried and his mum made him apologise to the dog.

It's been a rough year. I don't want to host, I don't want to cook for fifteen people, I don't want to dress up in something sparkly and smile and say "Blessed Christmas!" to relatives who hashtag things like #jesusisthereasonfortheseason or #itsthebravedudesbirthday (how can it be possible that we share DNA? How?). Like my dog, I want to stay at home on the sofa. I want to listen to angry music and eat meals out of styrofoam boxes and listen to the monsoon wind uproot thin, diseased saplings and send them flying into the windscreens of illegally parked cars.

My dog has no fear of the thunder or rain. He knows they can't hurt him, unlike men on bicycles, women with umbrellas and army boys stumping home in big black boots. When they come too close, some primal instinct raises his hackles and bares his teeth for him, and I have to drag him - howling, barking, flailing - away to a safer place. Home is safe. Sofa is safer. Bed is safest. Dogs are so easy, wanting their routine and their toys and treats. People are hard. We say we don't want to cook, and then we feel guilty, and so we volunteer to make a dish for the potluck, and then we feel resentful and sick of it all. People want too many things for their own good. They need to learn, the way Dmitri has learnt, that you can't have it all, even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas.

Friday, October 14, 2016


I don't know if I would've called it grieving.

I lost two old friends this year, one to death and the other to - well, call it suspected causes. I never got a clear explanation; he only called me some ugly names in front of our mutual circle of friends and then left in a rage.

To be honest, I couldn't quite believe something so dramatic was happening to me - it's the kind of stuff you read about on younger, prettier people's blogs, where they write in single, cryptic lines between inspirational memes, and declare themselves to be 'stronger than all the haters out there'. It was embarrassing, and unfair, I thought. To be punished for not stringing someone along? For doing the right thing, the ethical thing.

But I have behaved unethically in the distant past, in the way I left a partner. So perhaps this is a belated karmic lightning strike, and now I know how it feels like to be unceremoniously dumped, and I deserve the humiliation and hurt. Of course you can argue that a friendship is not the same as a relationship, but this was a long one: ages thirteen to thirty one, give or take a year. It was also a close one: we were in the same tight-knit circle of friends in school and beyond, we were neighbours for about a decade. Naturally the clean-up of the aftermath was difficult, more difficult than any romantic break-up - how do you erase such a quantity of historical debris? Years of photos, texts, posts, mutual friends' tags and comments? I gave up and left everything as is, frozen in time, and these days I just hope that Facebook doesn't wake me up with any unwanted anniversaries.

I am grateful that my circle doesn't blame me for the loss of our friend, except jokingly. (I think!) They came to my defense. Now we go on and pretend that things have always been like this - our number has always been the same. But I feel guilty, and in a feat of magical thinking, my guilt extends into the past - I am sorry, I should have treated people better, I should have left with more grace, more kindness, when I did leave. I feel guilty about everything except my former friend. Try as I might, I cannot recall one moment of exploitation, one time when I knowingly took advantage. My conscience is clear. Too bad it doesn't mean jackshit.

After it happened I was stunned for a few days, like I had been beaten over the head. I was angry, with an intensity I hadn't experienced in years. Adult life is comfortingly soporific, with its routines and stability, but I found myself swept back by a tidal wave of fury into my early twenties, my late teens. Often, as my students recounted yet another incident of "that basic bitch who was once my friend, but totally backstabbed me", I found myself nodding and grimacing: I get what you're saying, kid. I totally get it.

I groused about it to my friends, my brother, my husband, then kept going with life. What else can you do? Weep? In the last decade I've turned into the kind of person who cries fairly easily at lost-dog notices, stress-filled days, Pixar movies. But I have been dry-eyed about this, unable to call up the easy catharsis of tears. The only time I think about it now is when I take a bus to work that passes through the estate where we both grew up. It's a maddeningly long road, and I see our ghosts at various ages meandering through the shops and restaurants: here we are picking our way around the coffee-shop uncles, this is where we had a coupon for fancy Indian food, here is where we drank teh alia after the pasar malam. A few years before that we were children in school uniform, calling out to each other from two floors up, dialling each other's home phone numbers to say that the Simpsons Halloween marathon was on. I can't help but be sorry for those child-ghosts now, bickering over a fifty cent debt on a lazy, sunlit afternoon that felt like it would last forever. This is not an ending I wanted for them.

I used to feel that everything had been poisoned by his hate - my childhood home, my memories of school and adolescence, my favourite pop culture and books, my social media accounts. Even my self-image - I have never been called such things before, and they rankle. But I am coming to terms with the loss, and turning my face forward to the future has never felt more necessary than now. After all, I have nowhere else to go from here.

Friday, September 23, 2016

C'est Vrai

There is an old man dying in a hospital nearby.

Father Louis has had his 90th birthday. He is incontinent, bedridden, half-blind. One eyelid droops in his face, which is sunken and liver-spotted but still impressive in its bearing, perhaps because of his Gallic nose, rising whole and unbroken above long, chalky cheekbones. He has forgotten how to speak English. Now he speaks French in a soft country accent, the farmer's son swimming to the surface from seventy, eighty years ago. Who does he talk to? He talks to the church volunteers, a platoon of devout, middle-aged Filipinas who take turns tending to him. He can't remember their names anymore, but he keeps asking, and they soothe him: "Never mind, Father. We are your angels, we won't leave you. Speak English, Father. We can't understand." He gazes at them uncertainly, then resumes his low murmuring, his eyes wandering elsewhere. He is beginning to talk to people unseen, pausing politely for their replies ever so often.

The volunteer on duty sings hymns to distract him. They don't want him to fall asleep in the daytime too often, or he'll be up all night. She asks him if he's listening to her, and good-naturedly he insists he is, even when he's beginning to snore a little. She sings You are a priest forever, which is a song he knows - or used to know - and he begins to hum. At the end he pulls his chin forward, in an attempt to nod, and raises his voice: "C'est vrai." It's true.

It's true that he is alone and dying, without loved ones by his side. He is poor and suffering; the touch of the blanket makes him wince and call out in pain. He has lost his memory, his control over bodily functions. He depends on strangers twenty-four hours a day. It takes two of them to turn him over in bed, so if only one is present he must wait to have his soiled diaper cleared away.

But it is also true that he has seen years of glory in service: in France, England, Burma and Singapore. While other boys went to fight the Nazis, he travelled to the far East to become a missionary. When his parents died in faraway France, he held funeral Masses attended by his parishioners, the milk of human sympathy running freely in tropical climes. Now that he is on his deathbed, his angels gather every day to keep him company. They sing, chat, pray with him. They feed him carefully and laugh at his little remarks, like mothers fussing over a child.

I have always been a sceptic, but maybe my own mother was right - in a way. Maybe God provides, and angels exist, and to be tended so well in our last days is the best any of us can hope for amidst the pain and indignity. It's true and not true, at the same time.

Story credit goes to TK - one of the aforementioned angels.

Monday, June 13, 2016

For Sebastian

There is a photograph of all of us on the last day of school. We occupy the fourth floor staircase: Aisyah and myself demurely perched on the bottom row, and above us a packed gallery of the boys - grinning on every step, about to slide down the staircase rail, standing tall at the top, arms thrown carelessly around each other's shoulders. Too many to keep track of, too many to remain close to. Now when we show that photo to other people we will have to say, "And this is Sebastian, who died when we were 32."

We will have to tell people about him because he stood out so much, and the photograph is no exception. In it, he leans forward and meets the viewer's eye, a teenage boy's attempt at intimidation. In real life he was tall and broad-chested, with dark rings under his sunken little eyes, even at 13 years old. We called him the Crab, after the Little Mermaid's hassled sidekick, but he was more like some great, snorting beast of the field - a bull or bison, an intimidating sight to face down on the basketball court after school. 

Don't get me wrong. He wasn't a dumb jock. His intelligence manifested itself in his conversation. You couldn't take him for a fool, and very often he would corner you triumphantly and make you feel about two feet tall. We were all cruel teenagers then, and his presence in our after-school chatroom was enlivening - hilarious, sometimes hurtful, but he always stung the place awake. His love of boobs and upskirt views was only matched by his devotion to his Russian teen gymnast alter-ego, Godina, who spoke only in caps and frequently proclaimed her horniness in public channels. Godina tended to make an appearance whenever he was asked to be serious, or to focus on something.

Still, he couldn't hide his innate goodness, his generous sense of fair play. Once in Secondary 1 he had been teasing me all day long, and at recess I saw an opportunity to sneak up on him and kick him in the leg and run away. I forgot I was wearing steel-tipped boots for drill practice later. He hit the ground hard, howling and clutching his ankle. For a moment I had a fearful vision of the principal's office, his fractured bones x-rayed and on display. But he soon got back up and - typical Sebastian - said nothing about his massive bruise to our teachers or his parents. I guess he figured we were even.

We kept in touch after secondary school. I edited his appeal letters, project reports. He could always persuade you to do something he wanted. Once he got me to get up, go to the mall, search the music stores for a particular Kenny G album, bring it to the post office and mail it to his crush who was studying in Australia and was apparently a big fan of elevator jazz muzak. He didn't let a little thing like being confined in an army camp over the weekend stop him from what he had planned to do. He made a few calls, he got it done.

He was a real hustler. He wanted to make it big in business, though he was really happiest working on his grandfather's fish farm. He was willing to be temporarily tamed, to wear longsleeved shirts and sit in an office, because he was absolutely determined to achieve his goal of making a better life for his family, his girlfriend. We fell out partly because of his overwhelming drive. He called me when I was on my way to work and asked for media contacts which weren't mine to give. I told him no and in a huff, he hung up on me. 

He couldn't believe I wasn't willing to help him out with something so simple, and I was indignant that he could suspect me of holding out on him, after all I had done. I didn't invite him to my wedding. Quick to anger, quick to forgive: he congratulated me anyway and from then on he was always the one who made the effort to stay in touch, though things between us were never as easy as before. A few weeks before he died he tagged me in a comment, and then a while later he commented on something I had said. Both times I didn't reply directly. I was busy, I figured I'd talk to him later. Maybe when we were older, calmer, we could return to our childhood confidence, our mutual surety of friendship without agendas or competition. 

Now I and our other friends are the ones who are left to grow old, for now. Sebastian crossed over to eternal youth and twilight on Sunday, 5th June 2016. I am sad he is gone, but I am not sorry he is dead, because the alternative - life as a vegetable - was unthinkable for someone like him, who gloried so much in the physical, its labours and pleasures.

It was this fear I felt that night when I saw him in the Intensive Care Unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The hallway at 10.30pm was lined with old schoolmates, his colleagues and relatives. The entire front of his room was glass and only immediate family were allowed in. I saw them framed within the ceiling-height glass panel around his bed, his father and mother wrapping their arms around his chest, crying to him in Chinese to wake up, please wake up, son. A large ventilator tube snaked out of his mouth, distorting it into an O, but it was still recognisably, awfully Sebastian - Sebastian with a terrible slackness in his pale, fluorescent-lit face, an emptiness that convinced me he was not coming back, could not come back. What a shit world we live in, when one moment you're walking to get your car and the next you're braindead, your mind and self knocked clean out of your body by a fucking taxi, of all the mundane things.

I choose not to remember you like this, in the years to come. I will remember Godina, and the time they put dry ice down your back, and your voice on the phone telling me I had to come down to the pub for the 2B reunion, I couldn't miss it, even though I'd told you three times already I wasn't going. So full of life, eager to try everything at least once, and drag all your friends along with you. On Monday they will hold your funeral. Now you are in the twilight world, gliding down dark waters in a boat - you always did love the sea - scanning the horizon for your next great adventure on that distant island all of us must visit eventually. You deserve Valhalla, Sebastian. But I'm sorry you had to get there so soon. Godspeed my friend, and goodnight.

Sebastian Kae, 1984 to 2016. Dearly missed by his friends and schoolmates from ioven69.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Because It Is Bitter

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter," he answered;

"But I like it
"Because it is bitter,
"And because it is my heart." 

- In the Desert, by Stephen Crane (1985)