lidia

I was 2 months into a new job I convinced myself I liked, and to celebrate, I had visited my tailor to get a crisp white shirt and a pair of trousers.

There is something gratifying about having an elderly man fussing over you with a measuring tape. First, he measures your neck, and he might do this several times if he knows what he is doing. He spreads your arms and measures your chest twice, after which he pats your pockets and makes sure that they are empty before measuring your hips. To measure the rise of your trousers, he spreads your legs and gingerly places the tape from your belly button around your crotch to the small of your back. I still hold my breath while he is at work, afraid that the slightest tremor might destroy the lines of my shirt, although his practiced hands can surely tell the difference. Only when he returns to the book on his table to record his measurements do I breathe a little. I will assume that a man naturally places his physical condition on a level with his intellectual one and that he watches what he eats and knows what he is supposed to do with a barbell, so when a woman compliments you through one of her many means, you must also remember to acknowledge the fine work of your tailor and pay him the compliment of visiting him again.

When I finally decided on a colour from the swatch book, he looked approvingly and pronounced it a handsome shade of midnight blue. I agreed with my tailor in this particular, although when my female colleague had brought to my attention that she had coloured some cells in a spreadsheet “tiffany blue”, I never failed to tease her about it every chance I got.

On my way to work one morning, I discovered that I had forgotten to bring the keys to the office. In order to make the best of a situation, I got out at City Hall and got myself a coffee. It was 7 in the morning and a jogger rich enough to be exercising around grade A office space was already running about. I took out my laptop and began to make some plans on a mind map.

I thought perhaps I would have something classy, a restaurant where the waiter would tuck my girl into her chair, drop by at discreet intervals to see if we were comfortable and pour our wine by resting the bottle on his outstretched arm. The pricier retaurants I found had websites where someone who knew his html and css had agonized over the typeface and in the about page the owner chef was already beginning to sound like a self help book.

It was with this heady mix of possibility that I felt compelled to take Lidia to dinner, perhaps a Milonga, and after drinks, which my friends had advised me not to pay for because then it would look like I had a motive, work could take care of itself tomorrow. I hint coyly at work, but what I really wanted to do was to follow her back to her hotel room and sleep with her.

What happened instead was this – she peered at the menu at the restaurant and shook her head. I scrambled to find something else and fortunately remembered that there was a Swedish retaurant nearby. Her tastes being more prosaic and vegetarian, this too was dismissed. We ended up having pizza at a nondescript cafe. Feeling bemused that my plans had come to nothing, I consoled myself with the thought that my attraction to vegetarians was a cosmic middle finger to the vegan cause considering the amount of chicken breasts and hard-boiled eggs I consumed every day.

“I thought you might have gotten fat,” I said, “It’s been what 7 months since I saw you?”

Good conversations begin with insults and this one started with promise. She told me she had gone to Japan and gotten drunk on lemony drinks from a vending machine.

It was still early when we went to the Milonga at Queen street, but for a weekday night, there would not be any more than the 4 or 5 couples dancing on the floor. The men and the elderly women, Philippine escorts in tight shirts and baggy trousers, tai tais dressed up on a Thursday night, all cut elegant figures.

One hundred years ago, newspapers were saying of Tango – “I would condemn the tango if I were a married man, as a bachelor, I approve it.” “The tango is delicious and good for the salons, since it interests and attracts young people, thus stimulating marriage.”

Today, I did not care to debate the social merits of the dance, I merely knew that I felt an animal content as we danced wordlessly and slowly about the room, her body pressed against mine, a close embrace we would periodically negotiate to fit the contours of our bodies, she adjusting her head and leaving lipstick marks on my t-shirt, myself pressing my chin lightly against her hair and catching the smell of her shampoo. Her littleness made me feel as if I was capable of destructive violence, that if I punched her, she would surely crumple. This was so absurd I stifled a laugh.

I looked at her as she walked to the washroom. Her hair was long and golden and she let it loose like a “Viking princess”. Her habit of unselfconsciously looking straight at me and fidgeting with her top at the same time was both disarming and delightful. Did her charm compose of these physical dimensions? She looked silently at me as she came back – I thought it was a look of intent.

After the Milonga, we found a spot to sit at by the bay. I pointed out what little stars our sky has to offer and the Singapore skyline to her. We go over tired threads of conversation, including the Marina Bay Sands, the Merlion, and psf prices at Reflections by the Bay.

“What do you like about Singapore?”

“Well, the trains are fast, and its really clean as well.”

Other questions we leave unspoken before I tell her it is already getting late and I have to go home.

She did not have a handphone, a quirk perhaps of a woman with a point of view, but this meant I had to email her to wait outside the train station exit facing the shops. I worried If I had described the meeting point well enough and that we might circle about the station and never meet, doomed to email each other later to laugh ruefully about our mishap. But she turned up eventually. She had put on makeup, her face looked fresh and she had sparkly eyeshadow and blusher on her cheeks. I thought it strange that this bundle of gritty hair, glossy lip balm and bra straps on creamy shoulders should arouse such expectation and uneasiness within me. I needed to know where to place her in my life.

I told her about a girl I knew once who was beautiful and loved handbags.

“Are you high maintenance?”, I asked

“Well I’m not, I’m pretty simple”

“Really?”

“Do you want me to say that I’m cheap?”

I was talking distractedly to Lidia in the bus, but at night, it was hard to make out where we were headed.

“Uncle, Botanic Gardens 还有多少站呢?”

“已经过了,要走回去两站,也要过马路.”

So we walked along the roads, trying to find our way back. We were still lost when we found ourselves at the British Embassy and she suggested that we could perhaps take a shortcut across its grounds.

“You’re the one with the passport, but I wouldn’t be able to get in there would I?” I said.

“Well, that’s your problem.”

We found the entrance to the Botanic Gardens and followed the music to the bandstand. An acoustic set was playing in a pavilion festooned with glowing lights, and the trees about the place were also garlanded with lights. I put down the brownie, mango bread and 2 tiger beers we had bought and we sat down on the grass beside a couple trying to enjoy a moment as their children ran about them. “That’s very romantic”, I said. ‘It’s a reminder to everyone else where they’re headed if they keep this up.”

As we sat on the grass, I told her that the ring finger is for Aphrodite and there is supposed to be a vein that is connected to your heart from your ring finger, and I traced this imaginary vein along her forearm. Then, looking at the side of her palm, I told her that these were her fertility lines, and it’s supposed to show how many children she would have.

“I don’t really see anything though.”

“You’re being mean!”

“Maybe it’s the lighting, hmm.”

The band played their last song, something about dancing and looking into a girl’s eyes, and Lidia said, “Well done, that was nice.”

“I think I deserve a kiss for organizing this.”

She leaned in to kiss me on the cheek and I liked it so much, I told her I wanted another one for the camera. I still have the picture, her eyes are closed and I’m grinning because I thought this was a wonderful way to end the week. Walking out, we sat on a merry go round and smiled stupidly at each other as we spun around.

We went off to Boat Quay to look for somewhere along the river to have a beer. Beside the Singapore River, a reverse bungee ride was whizzing about over our heads.

“Do you reckon you could do that?”

“Oh no, I was taking an escalator in Japan and I nearly cried. You will see my sad face if you take me to a fairground and expect me to get involved. I like gardens and looking at sea creatures. Sniffing tea is also acceptable. Nothing like this. You can take it if you want.”

I did not have her fear of heights, it was the distance between us instead that I had to bridge when I reached my hand out and put it around her waist. She leant against my shoulder in reply. Later, I was getting impatient as she was taking one too many pictures, and as she was taking a picture of a mermaid on a pub storefront, I grabbed her wrist to pull her along and it slipped into her fingers so naturally it excited me. We adjusted our fingers because should it be her fingers first or mine?

At 3 in the morning, we sipped 막걸리 and watched the winter olympics on a big screen TV with a passing interest. She said that she was tired, and that sounded ominous and urgent to me, like a cue to me to act or let the entire day and all of the rest – the Milonga, the picnic, the bungee ride, the tentative emails she had sent before we had even met suggesting that we could always return to her place for wine if I was too busy – come to nothing. I had to struggle to say it: “Let’s go back to your place and have a drink.” I don’t know if she actually acknowledged, because I had already begun nervously talking about something else.

We went to 7-11 to look for more beer, but all the coolers had been chained and padlocked. “No drinks,” the cashier said gruffly.

She said, “I have coffee over at my place, if you want.”

Walking into the hotel, it seemed that we were lovers returning to her room for a secret assignation, the receptionist seated at the entrance, some overseer of virtue. Lidia had told me she had tried to look for a cheap hotel in a good area and had avoided anything with a seedy reputation. She pointed to a notice beside the elevator – no vice activity here. Her room was small and stuffy and the bed occupied just about the entire room.

“Would you like some coffee?” She showed me the instant coffeemix that the hotel had stocked in a cabinet beside the bed. We sat for half an hour watching Just for Laughs. It would have been absurdly funny to me if this was happening to someone else, but I now I thought that this was tragic and perhaps I should have kissed her instead of turning on the television. She yawned and said she wanted to sleep. I sneaked a look at her and turned away when she looked back, then looked at her again.

“What?”

I inched towards her and she moved closer towards me, her eyes half closed. I kissed her lips and placed my hand on her breast. When I reached under her dress and tried to pull down her panties, (it was black and gauzy, only to turn teasingly opaque at its apex), she mumbled something and put her hand on mine to stop me. As we continued to kiss, I reached around her back and felt the rows and rows of seams on her bra. The clasp refused to give and perplexed, I tried to pull it down instead. This must have exasperated her because she stopped kissing me and sighed. First, she took off her belt, some metallic, loopy thing the workings of which I did not have the slightest idea of, then she pulled her dress over her head. Now dressed only in her underwear, I ruefully noted that it was with a practiced motion that she unclasped her bra and smiled at me.

She squirmed and shuddered when I ran my hands over her tummy which felt particularly hot, as if she had a fever, even though the air conditioning was already turned up. From centimetres away, her nose looked bigger and I found that her eyes were a grayish green. Our teeth clicked as we kissed and we laughed. She said, “Your eyes are brown!”

I felt her getting wetter as I played with her, and it only excited me and encouraged me. “Like this,” she whispered and she guided my hand. She softly exclaimed oh and then I was crushing her in my arms and feeling her gasp again. I grabbed her neck with my hand and pressed my ear against her chest.

“What are you doing?”

Her heart was racing.

“Listening to your heartbeat.” I said.

I ran my legs against hers and felt thin pinpricks where she had shaved, my lips discovered light down on her upper lip and I tasted the lip balm she had reapplied at intervals when we had been drinking. As she lay beneath me, I pulled the bedsheet over us and she laughed, and I sat on her and marvelled at her breasts and green eyes. I felt her tampon in her, and this intimate knowledge only made me want to fuck her more for all the lonely nights I had spent before thinking about her. In my mounting lust, I tried to pull her panties down again, but she gasped and grabbed at me as if I had done a forbidden thing. She took me in her hand but I wanted even more for her to let me inside her, bloody sex didn’t seem to be a problem to me.

The next morning as I lay in bed, the morning sunlight was coming in through a slit in the curtains and it shone on her back as she lay sleeping wearing only a big T shirt. I could not sleep and I turned away only to feel her weight shifting, I guessed that she was looking at me. I nudged myself towards her and both our shoulders touched. We lay there looking at the ceiling and she looked for my hand and held it. I placed my hand on her tummy and lay it there.

“I’m sure I can find a six pack in there somewhere.”

“No, no, i’m a girl, I’m supposed to be soft.”

I was watching television when she came out of the bathroom topless. She wiggled her bum and said, “Do you like my shower dance?”

I giggled.

“I was telling David that I got a room with a bigger bed, and he said, oh? Just in case. I didn’t know if you had something else on on Valentine’s Day.”

I said, “You mentioned hanging out at your hotel, I thought hmm?”

“Ah, you saw through my scheme. I wanted drinks to fill you with alcohol, and then I could touch you inappropriately.”

“You know when you asked me about the best thing in Singapore? I lied, you’re the best thing in Singapore.”

“You’re mine!” she cooed, “Mine!”

There was once I was meeting her in City Hall and when I spotted her, she strode up to me and before I could say hello, she kissed me. I thought this was the sweetest thing, and without looking back, I would reach my hand out and know that she would slip her small hand into mine. If we were going up an escalator, I would let her get on first and then I would hug her and kiss her forehead. She looked at me once and said, “Are you getting horny?” I noticed that I had left a mark on her neck where I had bitten her. She had left her name in journal entries she would never know about.

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Liz

September 30, 2010

“Hey can you raise an incident in team track?”
“Yeah,” I use Jeffrey’s account.

“Kay, let me check something.” She came over.
“Is the Fix Description field Editable?”, she asked.
“Uhmmm….” (It was greyed out.)
Andre said, “Yeah, the fixer fills it in after the incident is sent to him.”

She looked at him and smiled ok. I was looking at her over the partition. Eyeshadow, a hint of blush. I’ve seen it all before. Her hair is clipped up behind her, her ponytail falls in curly splashes on her back. This is memory at work, but at that moment at my seat, I can only see her eyes over the partition. And a business smile, thank you for your information, I will return to my laptop and mute silence and the occasional exchanged glance. The game we play where we wonder who blinks first and who looks away and we read into that and wonder. Or when I stand up and stretch and drink from my water bottle, and I tell myself I am only stretching when I am preening.

Ah sorry, another thing, could i check the Valid Defect Field. She came over again. Dangerously close. I breathed her in. I clicked on the dropdown and pushed the mouse slightly towards her. She moved in closer to take the mouse, just beside my face and looked at the monitor. I didn’t budge. I tingle at the centimetre closeness. Her cheek is close to mine. I move back slightly. Andre must be picking this up, but I’ll let him think whatever he wants.

“Hmm, could you give me a screenshot of that?”, she said.
“Sure.”

eye contact

October 4, 2010

In the morning, I see Jiang Ling standing up at her cubicle. Move away. I take the circuitous route and ranging back to my cubicle I see I have gone too far. I’m at CJ’s desk. Backtrack to my cubicle and say a sideways hello to Andre.

Lunch. I came back to the office and headed straight for Shwa Juan. Would anyone say hello? There was comfort in the familiarity of the office, the one I have been in for one and a half years. But I was determined never to see it again. Straight towards her, I fished out my name card holder, took out $2 and left it on the table. She looked up, and I started fishing for coins from my coin purse.

“Kelvin,” I said, by way of explanation. “What’s this about?”
“Oh, milk tea.”
“How much was it,” I concentrated on my coin pouch.
“Ah, 40 cents.”
“Thanks!”
“Yups.”

I strode furiously away. Liz at her desk, new grey blouse. Mmm.
She looked over. “Aren’t you supposed to be at green?”
“Yups, I’m here for a lunch special.” Studiously looking at Guna’s monitor.

Pacey, Guna, Tony came over with questions. I felt important again, but I wanted to leave this place for ever. I unplugged the hard disk, and walked away. This time, I mustered some cheerfulness. I looked at her and waved goodbye with a smile. She smiled and waved back.

Back to Green.

Meeting with Jimmy. The batchjob has a letter at the end to indicate the frequency. D is for daily…. I was so bored I started drumming my fingers according to the description in Flow, of how Leibniz would occupy his time. O is for … Outstanding? I volunteered. The room broke out with some encouraging giggles. Jiang Ling turned around to look. I studiously made a pained face. I scribble on my paper.

Andre: “How do you feel? … It’s not Praveen… Yeah, what’s wrong?”
“It’s systemic.”
“You didn’t exercise yesterday did you?”
“No, it’s not that…. I did actually.”
“What’s wrong with the system?”
“No there’s nothing wrong with the system. It’s systemic.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s everything. Here see.” I googled the world.
“Maybe because it’s monday eh.”

saying goodbye

The teacher takes Yanling to the front of the class and for practice, asks if we have any questions, so James asks, “뭐살이에요?” and everyone in class titters. She paws the ground with her foot and says it is a secret, but after further questioning, James finds out that she’s been working for 10 years. The next morning, he asks his other Taiwanese classmate how old this makes her, and with further computation, he finds out that she is 33. James is also 33. The number is compelling. To James, it allowed him to entertain numerous fantasies about her, starting with her blue Addidas leggings, her thick and long wavy hair, and, as if God wanted to moderate her, she had black teeth.

James had silently noted the black deposits between her teeth and confided this to a friend over coffee, who chided his Asian obssession on appearances.
“What is it about Asians? I’ve had comments on my eyebrows, especially my right one, and how it looks particularly good.”
However, James could not get over it, he thought about how derelict her dentist must be, and whether the dubious food in Taiwan had a part to play in this.

According to Samantha: “She does look homely – she would be perfect as a housewife. You go back home and she’s got everything laid out for you and she says ‘Dinner’s ready!'”
All of us agreed to that, and when the question of the prettiest girl in class is thrown up, James says it probably is Liz.
He says, “Well, I don’t see too many Americans around, so, you know, I think they look better.”
“Well, that I see all the time, I actually think it’s the Chinese girl you know.”
“What, the one with the fat face?”
“No, the one fat face is always with. They’re always together.”
“Oh, Yanling you mean.”
James looked around just in time to see her squeezing some lotion out of a tube onto her finger and applying it over her lips while checking herself with a small mirror. James found it to be so sensual and private he wondered if he should look away.

Black teeth and domesticity notwithstanding, she was walking right in front of James on a Friday afternoon after class, so being polite, James hurriedly caught up with her to say hello and ask her where she was going. She said yesterday she had had a sudden craving for fried oyster omelette and so had gone to Itaewon to look for some (there were none), and defeated, she went to the basement at Hyundai to get bubble tea at Gong Cha. After that, a creepy old man started following her and she took the longest time to shake him off, but today, she didn’t really have anything in mind, unless, of course, he wanted to follow her.

James laughed and suggested tea, which was about the only thing they could have done, because Yanling was vegan, allergic to garlic, and did not have a phone. She agreed, and together, they walked along the dirty road, James trying his best to listen to her over the rumble of traffic. She was awfully quiet so James had to do most of the talking, but he did this without any resentment.

“What do you do on weekends?”, she asked.
“Well, I just study.”
“Dont you have any friends?”
“Yeah, sure I do,” James said. “I have lunch with my friends sometimes from last semester … Why am I even justifying myself to you?”
“Do you cry yourself to sleep?”
“Yeah, I go through a box of kleenex a day. I really should stop, it’s depleting my bank account.”

James stretched out his arms irritably and changed the subject. When he talked about how the last semester seemed to be so much more fun, she told him how everyone in class had turned against her and how she had turned purple from head to toe and all the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. He talked about the truism that school is much funner than working, and to that, she said that as a child, she did not have many friends and her family lived on handouts. Discouraged, James talked instead about how he wanted to look like Jesus Christ and have the long hair and goatee.

He said, “I havent been studying much lately though, I just lost all my motivation.”
She reached out and rested her fingers on his forearm. “That’s because you don’t have a social life.”

James sensed that a door had opened. Later, in his idle moments, he would imagine scenes of shared domesticity – they had a son together, always a son, never a daughter, who would bear his likeness. He would love his child and give him space to be whatever he wanted to be. His child would love him back and when grown up, would say his father was heartless and never made a strong impression.

At that moment, the weight of his collective hopes bore down on him and he could only flinch and talk about some inconsequential thing.

After tea, Yanling left abruptly at the pedestrian crossing while James walked the other way thinking about things to say and assuming she was behind him. Such missteps are only to be expected so James thought better of it and went home. Fearing that he had expected too much, he tried to push images of shared domesticity and conjugal happiness out of his mind, but it was hard to evict Yanling from the darkness of his small room when her nakedness made even her black teeth look inviting.

The next day in class when Yanling sat again at her usual spot in class, James said, “Have you considered emigrating to another table?”
“He’s telling me that I should move”
“No no no, I didnt meant that,” James smiled, “I was just kidding, I mean, Liz, help me out here…”

Later, during the coffee break when Yanling was munching on peking duck flavoured Peppero sticks, James asked her, “We’re good right?”
In reply, Yanling offered James a stick. To demonstrate that all was forgiven, James pouted and refused, to which Yanling kicked his shin and admonished him for ungentlemanly behaviour. He laughed and grabbed at her box, spilling its contents on the floor.

James bumped into her again one day after school at exit 8.
“What are you doing here?”, he asked.
“I vaguely discussed meeting with Lynn at exit 8. but I wasn’t sure, so I came just to make sure. What were you doing?”
“Ah, the same things, studying in school… Actually, you know, I don’t feel like coming down for class anymore”, James said. He imagined kissing her.
“Then don’t come then.” Yanling smiled and looked at him.
“Yeah, right. Alright, then, I’ll see you around.” James left and wondered how he could have let her long wavy hair make him overlook her teeth.

The next day, he felt Yanling’s persistent gaze on himself but he ignored it. At the end of class, he gave in and Yanling looked back at him brazenly, daring him to say something. James walked in front of Liz, removing her from view, and loudly invited Liz to lunch together.

James thought that it was nice being a student again in a foreign country. He imagined week-long love affairs, being caught in a triangle between a heavily-made up Japanese teenager and an ex-Chanel saleswoman, and his possibilites in life suddenly expanded beyond functional specifications, business needs and project deliverables.

James was in a pub with some friends, and his classmate told him how much she and her boyfriend loved chinese movies. She then turned to Jean and spoke in french, which left James with nothing to do but to finish his cigarette, the complimentary nuts on the table, his drink, and finally, he looked forlornly between his friends and the empty space between them, beginning to wonder about his walk back home and that especially slippery stretch before his goshiwon where the snow had frozen over on the pavement. His friend laid an arm around him to explain what they were joking about. “No, in France, my car (I have a car) is really small, and we were just saying how in Korea, it is so expensive!” To allay his distress, James agreed to another round of gin, and stole a cigarette. This banished all thought of returing home and he talked instead about Hooker Hill. “How do you get there from the station?”, he asked, “I hear they’re dressed in lingerie.”

“Listen, I have a secret I’ve told Liz but I havent told you yet,” Jason said, “The korean girl I’m with, she’s not divorced yet.”
James laughed. “What?!,” he thought for a moment and said, “Well, I’m sure you can talk your way out of it with your rudimentary Korean if the husband arrives. 웬일이세요?!?! 불고기 1인분 주세요.”

Another day in class, and Yanling today was dressed in her customary green sweater that reminded James of a Tonberry especially when she hunched. But spring had come and because of the warm weather, she took off her sweater and James noticed the black t shirt underneath. James could not stop himself from looking at her long hair that flowed over her chest, the hair that Yanling had said a store employee had followed her around for before finally asking if she could touch it, and she let her.

Yanling rekindled an interest in Chinese in James. James found that being in a foreign country always inspired a kind of zealousness in his mother tongue. When he tried to buy his coffee at the vending machine, he noted ruefully that he didn’t have the word for it and a host of other everyday objects. But to remedy this, he began to journal in chinese. One of his belated discoveries was that the word for oral sex is 口交. While James was noting this in his journal, Jason catches “oral sex” amid a sea of chinese characters and raises an eyebrow at James, who merely shakes his head.

These were all clumsy efforts at improving his Chinese, so when James took out his laptop, it was with hesitation before he understood what Yanling was saying, which in fact was: “Are you going through your secret porn stash?”
James replied, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…”
“I don’t have one, it’s all in my head.”, she said, pointing.

The class had an excursion to watch a play. James met up with the class milling outside Dongkuk Palace and saw Yanling hunched, standing, beside the 2 japanese girls. James went up brightly and joked with a chinese classmate. Finally, he asked Jason, “what’s happening after the play?”
“Well, we might check out the palace.”
“Yes, you’re coming with me,” Yanling tugged at James’s sleeve. “Yup, we should.” James said.

They walked inside the palace just in time for the changing of the guard. Three costumed men in fake luxuriant beards walked towards the gate as the crowd parted around them. James had walked past the palace earlier and seen a glimpse of the cherry blossoms lining the road, petals falling amidst the breeze. In this picturesque scene, he imagined telling Yanling that he would be leaving. She would hold him and beg him to stay while he would have to refuse firmly but kindly because of a vague but pressing reason. He liked the sound of that.

In Dongkuk Palace, James found a pedestal to sit on, and when Yanling came out of the toilet, he patted beside himself and told her to come on up.

“I don’t know if I can,” but she hoisted herself up, and they sat together swinging their legs looking at the toilet in front of them. James decided against telling her then that he was leaving. He took her hand, pulled down the hood of her hoodie, squinted, and traced the lines on her palm. “This is your fate line, and it tells me that you had a traumatic incident when you were growing up, but you can be thankful for it because it made you who you are today.” She laughed it off, “You’re just making it all up.”

Before James could continue, a man came over and told them to get off. They walked further along, and James finally said, “Well, actually, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh.”

James and Yanling walked about in the palace a while longer, they looked at the throne room which was boarded up, and took more pictures. They then left to walk along Cheonggyecheon stream, and he kept silent as he thought about how he’d be in transit in Kuala Lumpur Airport the next day and be sweating on the tarmac as he made the walk from the airplane to the budget terminal.

“Haven’t you seen Gyungbeokdung? I think it’s at the end of this stream.”, Yanling said, so they walked alongside, and Yanling told James about her life. She had been working for 8 years, and she talked about the different jobs she’d had.

“I couldn’t hold a job for long, they always said I had a personality problem. There was one time I was hired and fired on the same day. They said that we don’t think your personality is a good fit for us.” She added with extra bitterness, “It seems I get fired a lot.”

They continued walking, and James looked at his watch.
“I’ll let you go if you don’t want to go to Gyungbeokdung”, she said.
“I really have to print my boarding pass.”

“I don’t believe it. You can’t be leaving.” Yanling said.
James showed her his ticket.
“Just because you bought it doesn’t mean you’ll leave. I can’t believe you’d do it without saying goodbye properly.”

In the train, as it ticked away to Sinchon, they both stood in silence as the stations announced themselves. James looked at her and made to say something but stopped and found nothing to say. Yanling squeezed James’s shoulder.
“I guess I’ll see you around.”, James said.
“Really, that’s it?”
James gave her a half hug, walked out and didn’t look back.

In the airport, James left his peacoat in the toilet stall, this final act preceded the day before by the green checked lumberjack shirt he left in the recycle bin (for plastic and paper) in his goshiwon. Before that, he left his textbooks and papers in the lounge on the ninth floor beside the vending machine.

At the departure hall, James walked both ends because he was becoming sentimental. There were smoking lounges in which men were smoking, and he was tempted to try going in to bum a cigarette, but thought better. He went to his departure gate and asked for a coffee, “Americano 주세요.”
“Three-thousand five-hundred.”, the cashier replied stiffly in english.
James persisted with, “감사함니다.”

As James stood on the gangway, he allowed himself to cry quietly but here was essentially a woman with nice hair and black teeth that he had never slept with. He thought it probable that he wanted too much to commemorate this last day with sentimentality. He looked out a porthole and composed himself as he stepped onto the plane and showed the stewardess his ticket.

Yanling emailed James, and ended her email with 2 x’s. She says she will come visit. That she didn’t even have enough time to say goodbye properly and would have cried all over him. She x’s her email, and asks if James will miss her. James replied yes, but couldn’t find it in himself to x his replies. Although he had imagined kissing her and marrying her and having children with her and many maudlin things, without her presence, the emails would stop and that would be the end of it.

James had a picture of Yanling bending over her okonomiyaki and another one of her all dark and underexposed beside a cafe window. It was there she had pawed the air in front of her and exclaimed, “Imma a cat!”, and gone limp in her chair. James remembered how he had laughed and wanted to tickle her tummy. He also had the last picture they had together with the palace in the background. The one constant in these pictures was that she looked good in all of them because James had thrown out all the pictures of her with thinning limp hair or looking unnaturally fat, and had kept all the good ones to send to her.

-14 C

Today I manage to wake while it is still dark outside. My goshiwon is on the 5th floor, and I have to walk past a noraebang, a cafe, a restaurant, recycling rooms, and password locked toilets on my way to the ground floor. Sinchon is a dense warren of inscrutable shop signs and pictures, the pavements undulate, clash, and break into dark glowing alleyways without the forethought of URA concept plans. Like my goshiwon, U Plex is an improbable shopping complex that is a shoebox stacked 12 floors high. Starbucks goes up 4 floors and has an elevator of its own.

I am peeling away the anonymity that lies behind every sign. Ramsey points out a shop across the street that sells dog soup. We try the baseball batting cage for a 1,000 won, and after that, we check out a multibang. This sounds fun but is really a video game / karaoke room. A kissbang is less disingenuous and is exactly what it says.

Macdonald’s is neither illicit nor unfamiliar. However, my extra value meal is now a set. I no longer upsize, instead Youngju pauses to check her phone and tells me that i should upgrade my meal. She says that usually we do not upgrade, my friend says that it is too much!

At the school cafe, when I order a double espresso, they try to give me two singles instead. The proper way to do it is to say, “espresso double-shot-teh-ro (으로)”. After telling Ramsey, he says, “ah, Espresso by way of 2 shots”, which is literally true but bothers me.

My Iphone regrets that it is -14 C. Now I have to walk about with a perpetual shrug and my hands in my peacoat, just like James Dean walking down a New York street smoking a cigarette. But it isn’t raining like New York, it’s snowing like South Korea and the snow has turned into either dirty slush or slippery ice, which legitimizes weather for conversation since it is now a mortal risk – here a girl squeals and grabs onto a boyfriend, there another girl falls off the bus onto the pavement. The news plays grainy clips of commuters walking drearily along, like america’s funniest videos, then falling. This will not do – the road sweeper grabs salt from blue boxes along the streets and scatters them about.

The anonymous morning crowd waddles past me like a stream of popsicly penguins, punctuated by exhalations of smoke. I take out my iphone to double check the temperature. I had to sleep with a singlet, a t-shirt, a long sleeved t-shirt, a cardigan, a sweater, and a peacoat. Then I had a blanket and a heat pack stuck onto my shirt that I forgot about. While playing racquetball, it got warm so that I took off my sweater. Ramsey looked at me and laughed.

This is what my travel insurance report will say:

cause of death – hypothermia.

circumstances of death – the subject was found, according to Officer Bo Kyung, in his room in a state of undress. Hypothermia typically induces paradoxical undressing.

clothing – the body is received clad accompanied by: See Property Inventory List. Sanitary pad found adhered to t-shirt.

sinchon bus stop

“How much money are you bringing?,” Grandma asked in Chinese.
“Mom has given me a few purses to put my money in, I’ll put them in my …” What is the Chinese word for coat? I give up and use English instead. This does not bode well for my future Korean lessons.
“Coat and in my bag.” I slip my hand into my imaginary coat pocket to show her what I mean. I am sure I will do a lot of gesturing in future.
“That’s fine, but …” Grandma pauses, then lapses into Hokkien when it becomes too difficult for her to express herself.
“Put some money in your jeans, but most of your money, put it in your underwear.”

As I walk down the aisle of the AirAsia Airbus, I doubt that I’ll get to enjoy the luxury of an empty seat beside me. The airplane is filled with people. I try to spot Korean faces but I cannot tell the difference. Only when the mother behind me talks to her son can I place them as Singaporeans headed for a holiday. Whether stealing into basketball courts on sunday evenings to play soccer with friends – ah bengs with broken homes, some working as bookies, some with long dyed hair; or at the voice clinic where the ex radio DJ told us to practice an international accent for greater clarity, the accent was a part of my identity. On a flight away from Singapore, I was reminded of what I was leaving behind.

I settle into my seat besides a young woman wearing a hijab. She’ll stick out in Seoul I bet, what will she eat and where is she going?

I picture talking to her for the rest of the flight –
You’re going where?
Oh that’s funny, I was thinking the same thing too!

But first, logistics. Who is the man sitting beside her? I figure out that they don’t know each other so after more procrastination and half-attempts I ask her, “Where are you going in Seoul?”
“We’re checking out Gangnam and Namdaemun”
“Oh god, Gangnam Style”, I cringe and we both laugh.
“Namdaemun, isn’t that the one that burnt down, you know, some smoker left a cigarette and the whole thing went down”
“Don’t know …”
“How are you going to find Halal food in Korea?”
“That’s why I brought a lot of Maggi Mee.”

I begin to talk garrulously and when there is nothing to say, I take out my macbook air and show her my goshiwon, the cramped apartment I will be in before the day is over. As she leans in on my shoulder to look, I secretly thrill at her touch, but it feels childish and stupid compared to the easy charm of Elody and Dusan’s farewell – the french call it la bise.

For instance, as we were walking down the steps at Dongdaemun subway, and Elton John strained in the background, Dusan began to sing, “and can you feel the love tonight …” Francois and Elody joined in “… between lovers and vagabonds …”
I smiled as Dusan said, “You must think we are crazy”
“No, just french.”, I said.
“It’s being human.”

The French sing in the subway, the Australian teaches the beer game, the Singaporean wants the cheesecake, while the Japanese is allergic to alcohol but sips politely as soju and cider is mixed amid good cheer. The Korean, what little contact I have had, has come in the form of supermarket transactions – Please sign here, (and also, what I imagine is the cashier asking if I want a plastic bag or not) or when I am lost and looking for directions – Is there a movie theatre here? I am at a deserted shopping mall with spooky naked mannequins tastefully covered up in cloth (on TV, the koreans are remarkably touchy. Once a character places a cigarette in his mouth and takes a drag, the offending cigarette is immediately blurred. Once taken out from the mouth, the cigarette is uncensored. This jars the senses, one of many things which mutely show that things work differently around here, I am in a strange land.)

The farewell is much more prosaic. The aisle fills with people grabbing their luggage from overhead. I inch past her to get my things and after debating whether to get her name, and looking alternately at her and away, the words end on my lips as she stops me with a nod and a smile. I nod goodbye and walk off quickly.

As I walk out the arrival gate of Seoul International Airport, I already see the buses lining outside in a row. They hide a secret terror – how do I get on those things, do I pay the driver, or what? I look at my laptop for the third time. Bus 6002 goes to Sinchon, wait at either bus stop 5B or 12A. I don’t need to look, I already have this by heart. I brace myself for the cold and the unknown and walk outside, my strategy is – look like I know what I’m doing and follow everyone else. Some people are sitting outside just waiting for the bus to arrive. This is decidedly unhelpful. Yes, I am at the correct bus stop. Yes, the map says the fifth stop is Sinchon. Now what? Thankfully, my charade ends when I spot the bus ticket counter.

I walk uncertainly towards the booth and the woman behind the glass. I circle it slowly while studiously avoiding the woman’s gaze. A queue forms and they presumably speak in quotidian korean:

Ticket to ___ please.
That will be ___.
Thank you very much.
Have a nice day.

Except the words do not make sense. Everyday words are now ineffable, terrible, mysterious, they anticipate furrowed brows, apprehension and tentative gestures.

“Sinchon?” I enunciate expectantly. I hope a ticket will appear but a quizzical look is equally possible.
“Sin-chon? Sin-cheon?”, she makes it clear that there are 2 different places with similar names in Korea, but all I want is to go to S-I-N-C-H-O-N. That’s how it is clearly and uselessly spelled in English.
“uhm, Sogang University?”, she nods her head, and prints another ticket for me. The first one is no good and she scratches at it with her pen.

Everyone else deposits their bags in the luggage hold at the bottom, so I do the same. The driver asks me something, looks at me, then says again, “Ticket?”.

As the bus moves off, I am running late. I haven’t slept or eaten in 24 hours. I need to meet Hyunju at 10 at Sinchon, which is the 5th stop. This I expect I will have to count off one by one. What if the bus skips a stop and I miss it?  I begin to rehearse my line, Sinchon? Sogang University? (I might have to mime University. Perhaps scribbling on an imaginary piece of paper can pass off for study and by extension, University.) Thankfully, a recorded voice in Korean, Chinese and English announces which stop is next. 2 out of 3 languages is good enough for me. When I come back the other way, I’m gunning for a perfect score. But the agglutinative details of the korean language must wait. I need to get off at Sinchon.

john keeps looking

John’s name is unimportant. He is old enough to have lost some of the advantages of youth, yet old enough to have done so gracefully. He is no longer the dandy that he once was, and that consumptive lust that occasionally threw him at some newfound thing had dissipated and given way to an easy elegance that was comfortable and knew when enough was enough. His raw selvedge denim had grown with him, and telltale wear in the shape of a key was beginning to show on his right pocket.

Erika comes from the north of India but she was brought up locally. She prefers to bring lunch to work and reads during lunch. John thinks she is fat because of all the carbohydrates and he’s read that it spikes, then crashes your insulin and keeps you hungry. When he was telling Erika that he liked to sniff his books, and that a good book smelt of musty cabinets, Erika did not flinch, she smiled too eagerly and shaked her head as John forgot what he was talking about. Fat people reminded John of a desk cluttered with the detritus of life – bank statements, unopened letters, papers with a draft of a story that would one day be written. Fat people just hadn’t the time or the desire to tidy their desks yet.

John woke up one day and left for Starbucks at 6 in the morning but put away the book he had brought. The problem was that he was reading the wrong books. There is nothing to be done about this, just as it is when an ugly girl meets a mirror. It is only happy providence that puts a good book in our hands at the times in our lives when advice is moot but a good book rings with truth. John had read about the forty eight laws of power, the seven habits and the fifth discipline, but the numbers didn’t add up.

Occasionally, a girl would say, between a great many books, “Do you have a sister?” “Yes, I do, but she’s fat.”

Or she might say, “You’re here! Don’t you miss us, do you want to come back yet?” and a rosy tint would colour her cheek and make John wonder if it was make-up. This particular girl reminded John of Wally, that red and white striped bespectacled geek with a winsome smile and always hiding in a crowd, and when he told her that, her eyes crinkled and her mouth bunched up into a tight smile. He felt guilty just looking at that from the corner of his eyes. She always wore whimsical dresses – John remembered the one with a green scoop neck collar, sheer sleeves, and elastic poofy cuffs, as if she had decided to dress for a picnic instead of for the office. Her hair was messily parted, it was a thick, knotty afterthought.

The american accent did it for John. He decided he would have fabulous lunch conversations with Sarah. Now Sarah did not know John, but when she first saw him, she thought she now had a channel 5 friend. She offered her hand and said, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the view over here.” John looked out at the sea and did enjoy the view, but the people were even better.

After a month, she mentioned that they had another meeting to go to. This bored John but Sarah was fresh from school, and worked with the enthusiasm of a recent graduate trying to love her job, having seen the youtube commencement speeches, the editorials in the paper, and wondering if it was at all possible. John had watched and read the same and he concluded that he would try from Mondays to Fridays, but that on Saturdays and Sundays, when his finite love had been exhausted, he would need to be elsewhere recreating himself. When work began to intrude into his weekends, John began to wonder idly on his one and a half hour commute if he could do better.

He found her one saturday morning at work already at her seat.

“Oh my god, thats strange, usually you’re a bit late, but you’re in the office already! Maybe you realized that this in your destiny and you’ve decided to come early every morning!”

“Uhm, no, I have a meeting at 930.”

“Want to have lunch at the cafe on Tuesday? Let’s do something before I run off. I figure we can play pool and loser treats, since I’m broke and can’t afford anything”

“I’m fully booked on Tuesday though!”

“Ugh, do I have to have lunch with William again? You can never be sure about these married Indonesian types.”

“You’re so bad!”

At lunch, their conversation skipped lightly around his plans for Europe. John was to follow the trail of economic destruction, braving the rioting and unemployed youth, and post a picture of himself in Mykonos with the tag – “Sarah made me do this.”

John had many schemes in his head all the time, like tailoring or tutoring, why, he even had a friend his age who was a hawker. He decided to try stand up comedy and bought a chair. This was much less complicated than buying a house, which you had to time macroeconomic cycles for. In his small house, John saw a canvas to express himself, no less strong or important than the biological imperatives of eating and making love, and as susceptible to periods of indulgence or temperance. So the chair was not just a chair, but it completed the wooden coffee table that was bathed in a warm pool of light. The light would create an intimate space surrounded by shadow which people would naturally gravitate toward. The chairs were all different because people are all different, and the table was wooden and had a beautiful grain because John was no longer a dandy and wanted something artless. But John refused to get a coffee machine, or a smart phone, or even internet access. Once in a while Singtel would send a brochure to entice him with fibre broadband, but John stubbornly threw these away.

John saw many patterns that needed to be constructed in his home. For instance, the pattern “lounging in a coffee shop” consists of certain elements, and like any living language, this is open to contest. For John, these are – a simple white blouse, a constructed blazer, a mane of luscious thick hair, and pert breasts which rhythmically rhyme with each footfall. Four storey high ceilings, a glass facade with soft lighting filtered through a cloudy sky. Finally, an espresso and a bench to afford this view.

In America, he took acting class because he listened to his heart, like how a cow will lick salt pillars if it is sodium deficient. John wanted to be more like himself, and so he took acting class. Paula, his acting teacher taught him about Adler and Stravinsky, and he distinctly remembered some of her words – “What do you say if you want someone to ask how you are? You ask him first!” “Look for the conflict!” “What’s my motivation?” John tried to find the motivation for every line of dialogue he read. He also found Mary. One day, he had her over, and he rehearsed his lines with her. She spoke again with an american accent. On the last day of class, she played the piano in class and he sat beside her and was filled with self-pity because he could only play chopsticks. As he turned to go, she hugged him from behind and said she would miss him. John was more embarrassed than flattered and said something unmemorable to her before he left. He no longer cared as much for fatness, but found enthusiasm beguiling, he thought that this could compensate for lazy eating habits.

When he returned, he was sick of himself. His books did not ring with truth, they were sincere, to the point, and flatulent. His guitar had lost its tone in spite of the calluses he was building on his fingertips. His friends were onerous and ugly and he could not muster the energy to have have coffees with friends and tell them stories, so he left to look for a Mary that would take the place of the one he found in America.

When Kim spoke english, it took all your concentration and attention to figure out if she wanted her coffee black or with milk. John could say as much for his korean. Kim did not hug John from behind, instead she gave John some chocolate which John thanked her for then threw away immediately when she turned her back.

John went back home and bought a fork which was not just a fork. For instance, Coffee Bean will give you an americano in a tall glass cup that looks like a vase. This makes the coffee unfit for drinking. John continued shopping for things for his house.