May 11, 2015

la beauté de l'éphémère

(this was one of the pieces I wrote for my Creative Nonfiction class. The title doesn't really seem to gel with the feel of the essay in my opinion....but I don't have a better one, so this will do for now. I'm sorry it took me more than a whole semester to put it up!)

Sandra and I stroll down Amsterdam Street, Manhattan. French Dude has decided to head back to the hostel first, but we’ve only had one crazyass long island tea. $10 for a jug of beer? We grab a seat with the dancing college kids and pool-players, two Asian girls sharing a jug on Amsterdam Street. Two guys walk by, walk over. They’re having a Hyundai company celebration. Evidently tipsy. How’s it goin’, girls. God leave us alone, I want to enjoy our ten-dollar beer and chat about school and ask Sandra about her boyfriend. Guy puts his arm around my waist. They’re asking us where we’re from, so we make it a game to stall for time. Hmmmmm. Vietnam. Guy’s hand slides to my thigh. I put my hands in my pockets. They ask all these questions. What’s your last name? What a joke: I can’t say I’m a ho, so I make something up. Tan. Taiwan. Guy’s hand slips into my pocket. I need to pee. I trip in a rush. The bathroom needs some soap. I dry my hands and exit the ladies’ and there he is, hey babe. Oh God. On the way back he attempts to hug me from behind. I instinctively push him away, speed-walk. Uptown Girl’s on full blast, I shout along. You have a beautiful voice. The guys make a deal: if they can guess where we’re from, we go for karaoke. Sandra’s and my eyes meet. The jug is a quarter full. China. Big gulps, big gulps. Before we go Sandra shows him the answer. “Shit! We guessed that!” No, you did not. We are not Taiwan, or China, or Vietnam; we are always only ourselves.

I recognise that straw hat. “Hi, we met yesterday?” Little Polish women behind blue-and-white carts hand out obwarzanek, and our food tour guide tells us that this is the pride of Krakow. Straw hat guy is a South Korean who’s been travelling the world for seven months now. I tell him I’m from Singapore. “Oh, I was there for like, two days,” he says. “It was so hot. I stepped out of the train and I was like, wow, I think I’ll leave tomorrow.” But we have no time for introductions: soon we are laughing about mothers and laundry, teasing each other over fermented cabbage. When the food tour ends, he asks if I’ve checked out the Schindler’s factory. Let’s go together? But it’s a forty-five minutes’ walk away, and admission closes in half an hour.

“So? You gonna give up? You a quitter? Let’s do this, man! We gotta try!”

A straw hat and a beige dress crossing the riverbank, laughter like the billowing trail of a steam train. It begins to rain a Singapore rain. My red umbrella between a straw hat and a beige dress, the sky a uniform grey, we jump over mud pools and blame each other for jinxing the weather. We wander into a town so dull that they put an advertisement over it on the map.

We never get to the Schindler’s Factory. Eight o’ clock, the sun is setting; we make our winding way back to city lights and tourists, but his pace begins to slow. Hey, I say, let’s check out the piano jazz bar back at the main square? His eyes brighten again, but he’s gotta go back to his hotel to take a shower, he’s a drenched mess. We agree to meet at St. Mary’s Church in half an hour.

I am there right on time, between the imposing brick walls surrounded by enormous metal chains and the Zara store. I prepare my smile, my eyes on the alert for a straw hat. Then ten minutes pass. Twenty.


I want to send him a text, but neither of us have Polish reception– besides, I didn’t get his number. I pace along the church walls. I could call out for him, maybe, maybe he isn’t wearing that hat and I just didn’t spot him in the dark. And I realise I don’t even know his name.

Yellowing at the edges, school uniforms and empty stairwells: forbidden ritual. Your lap bearing the weight of me. My own reflection in your eyes. The night I taught you how to kiss you were nervous, but you slowly learnt a comfortable sort of love; you learnt the language of touch. Your hands made a sensory map of my hands, of my waist; traced the outlines, filled every crevice. Your hands traced the hem of my skirt, explored the smoothness of my thighs. You hated the slightest trace of PDA, but that night, we held hands as we crossed the road. While waiting for a cab I leaned into you and you didn’t inch away; you put your arm around me instead.

Two days later you stopped talking to me. I demanded to find out why; I found you in the computer room, clicking away at a game. I sat down beside you, waiting for you to acknowledge my presence. For forty minutes you didn’t budge. When I couldn’t take it anymore I barged out, into the emptiest corner of the school, and I cried and I cried and I cried, and then I cried some more, until my friends gave up, and then I became afraid of crying.

The night I miss my JFK flight, I shoot a panicked text to French Dude. Sandra has already left for D.C. He wants to check out Coney Island. He shows up – bald head and glasses – and we endure a train ride to the southern tip of Brooklyn. I ask him why he shaved his head bald. It’s just easier to manage, he says. Good for doctors. Suddenly, amidst the monotonous darkness: a display of neon color. Screaming teenagers and roller coasters, tea cup rides and big clown faces, all under the watchful eye of the glowing Ferris wheel. A Singapore sea breeze. We clamber onto the Zenobia. Now, when I think of Brooklyn, I think of being flung towards bright carnival lights, my screams reaching out into eternity, and French Dude laughing the most carefree laugh.

My best friend in kindergarten was a French girl called Lydia. She'd come to my humble HDB flat and we'd run to the playground, shaped like a gigantic elephant. I'd go to her condominium and we'd jump on the stepping stones. Once her grandfather opened the lift door for me, smiled and said "Ladies first." I felt like a princess. A French princess. This was my first, and most memorable, encounter with chivalry.

My best friend in primary school was from China. Her mum spoke to my mum in English, and my mum replied in Chinese, both aunties on a desperate endeavor to brush up their language skills. We spent every afternoon on the phone together. "What are you eating?" "Fruit Loops! Do you want some?" "Mmmm, I can smell it. Give me!" I would then pretend to push the cereal through the receiver as we both giggled, our minds still unwilling to concede to the limitations of telephone lines. "Did you get it?" "Yes I did! It's yummy!"

Google Maps: Brooklyn. Zoom out. Street View: I land the little yellow man anywhere. I am at a yacht club in Connecticut.

We make our mark in places all around the world. Scribble your name on the brick walls of an Athenian shophouse, laugh at London’s Singapore Noodles. We let these places leave their mark on us: my sneakers sandy from Langkawi, my Nepalese ukulele. On the world map in my room I tag the places I’ve been, and the places I hope to go. We are never only ourselves; we are all a colorful foreign mess.

The South Korean reappears just as I’m giving up, without his straw hat. I ask for his name. “Isaac,” he extends his hand. That’s strange. In junior college I dated a South Korean called Isaac. “What!” He stops in his tracks, in incredulous fascination. I brush the whispers of uniforms and stairwells from my mind.

The piano jazz bar’s got some special performance on – three cute middle-aged rapping Bill Piel lookalikes in polo tees and berms. But it’s too noisy to talk, so we head out instead. We walk anywhere, nowhere, and I ask him why he shaved his head bald. It’s just easier to manage, he says. Good for travellers. We talk about college, about the controversy surrounding my school and the tyranny of journalism – we had both considered journalism as a career path once. Now we are only two confused Asians wandering around Europe, unwilling to grow up, uncertain about what we really want for ourselves.

We have circled the town square nine times. The castle chimes: 3.45am. And I realize that I have never conversed with someone so easily, so endlessly, in my entire life. And if our paths could cross a little more, if he had been born in a different place or if we had gone to the same university, we could’ve been the best of friends. We could go on ice-cream breaks and endless walks. But fate doesn't work that way, and tomorrow I head back to Singapore.

A farewell hug: the tragedy of travellers.

“See you,” I say. He hesitates.


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