Room Magazine - - DUNIC -

SIN. Af­ter wor­ry­ing that a stranger has planted drugs on you, that you will be found out and sen­tenced with the death penalty—af­ter, the next thing a vis­i­tor no­tices upon ar­rival is Sin­ga­pore’s fas­tid­i­ously clean air­port. In­hale. A ver­dant flora wall tow­ers over the cus­toms gates, ab­sorb­ing car­bon diox­ide, re­leas­ing oxy­gen. Ex­hale. A full day of travel has come to an end. A ster­ile taste set­tles in the mouth, a hint of hu­mid­ity on the arm.

Elec­tric fans. Ceil­ing fans. An open win­dow in the morn­ing. I de­spise the pseudo-cool of air con. I step outside to test if the air is bet­ter. There is a pool in the court­yard, the sur­face blind­ing. Frangi­pani-per­fumed air, sun-singed arms. Be­yond the en­trance I tread onto a tacky pink gob. Stuck to my sole. Il­le­gal to sell but not to chew. I drag my san­dal along the con­crete. Cats pile in the shade next to me. They squint. It’s cooler in the ditch.

MRT to the last stop, switch to the mono­rail to Sen­tosa Is­land. Ride alone past the thirty-seven-me­tre tall Mer­lion, Sin­ga­pore’s myth and sym­bol. Un­able to see its ichthyic tail from above, only its enor­mous maned head. It’s too early to be here, but I want to evade peo­ple, heat. The main­te­nance crew col­lects fallen fronds, an ex­ca­va­tor per­fects the man-made shore. Stroll past the stretch of de­serted beach-bars, take off flip-flops, wade into the Sin­ga­pore Strait. Sea or­gan­isms prick my calves like nee­dles.

Seah Im Food Cen­tre be­fore the lunch rush. Or­der lime juice and roast duck rice. Aun­tie ap­proaches my ta­ble of­fer­ing tis­sues for sale. I gulp my drink. She holds three pack­ets to­gether, one dol­lar. I try my best Man­darin. Bu yao. She holds the tis­sues closer to my face. A Malay man at the ta­ble next to me: Not ag­gres­sive enough. Bu yao! Not buuu yaooo. I nod, try again. Short tones. She walks away. A rat scut­tles un­der ta­bles. Here, filth finds a place to rest, if only for a mo­ment. My duck grease ar­rives. Spoon rice, meat, chili. Lift shirt to nose. It’s too early to smell like fried cock­les. At the fruit stall, rambu­tans, pa­payas,

and man­goes ripen to rot, their flesh liq­ue­fy­ing to sug­ary slush. Flies con­sider their op­tions. I con­sider ice chen­dol. My lips are oily from lunch, but the aun­tie is no longer here.

I lis­ten to the ra­dio to im­merse my­self in Sin­ga­porean mu­sic. Ev­ery sta­tion plays the same song by Ri­hanna. My fin­gers hurt from open­ing too many beers. No mat­ter how many I drink I am not cooled in this heat. I’ve be­come a dis­tended por­poise.

I try to count the rus­set-coloured pan­els on the fan pin­wheel­ing above me. I’m un­able to an­chor the fan’s mov­ing parts to tally them. My body is still—at least, I think it is. Who can be sure of any­thing? A chrysan­the­mum shadow plays be­hind the fan, while two bob­bled chains sway be­low the lights. The fan spins silent. I ques­tion its sta­bil­ity.

Be­side me are the pills I never took. You gave them to me, promised me they would take me places. Now, the pills are all that’s left and they ex­pired two months ago. This hu­mid­ity hasn’t helped their longevity. I won­der about their po­tency.

On top of sweaty sheets, I ex­ist with­out ba­sic or­der. Or­der of eat­ing. Of hy­dra­tion. Of re­liev­ing my­self of con­cen­trated urine. Bud­dha says, ex­is­tence is suf­fer­ing. De­sire is suf­fer­ing. To be awake with one’s anx­i­eties is suf­fer­ing. If I can sleep, then I can sur­vive, but there’s some­thing I de­sire, some­thing that, in my rest-de­prived state, seems at­tain­able. Re­union. Per­haps through dreams? But then there would have to be sleep. With­out worry, with­out un­named guilt.

Re­al­ity is un­re­al­ity. I have no ref­er­ence points to val­i­date my ex­is­tence. Morn­ings and nights I pray to other gods, talk to you, think of new su­per­sti­tions.

5 a.m., I wake. Hello?

Sin­ga­pore, your Chi­nese zo­diac is the snake. Snakes say lit­tle, but are wise. They’re fi­nan­cially pros­per­ous, but can be vain, self­ish, and cheap. Al­though they ap­pear to be calm, they’re strong, pas­sion­ate and hate to fail (so ki­asu!). While Western­ers con­sider the snake an un­der­handed an­i­mal, the Chi­nese cher­ish a para­dox: the snake is ag­gres­sion and de­struc­tion, also dis­cre­tion, acu­men, flex­i­bil­ity, and beauty.

And, you are a Leo.

Re­mem­ber the days when I be­came a rhi­zome, a thing un­der your

sur­veil­lance, some­thing to cul­ti­vate? I was obsessed with be­ing able to grow, to cre­ate an ideal en­vi­ron­ment for you and I. I tried to give you at­ten­tion with­out pos­ses­sion. I felt the lust of sci­ence and soon, you be­came the sub­ject. I stud­ied you, no longer the root. I gave you soil. You said the con­di­tions weren’t right. That’s re­al­ity, you said. Re­al­ity was a syn­onym for mis­for­tune. I should have started the pills then.

If I gave this man my spine he’d grunt while forc­ing shoul­ders back. Mum­ble that I sit too much, un­aware of where I’ve been, where I’m try­ing to go. In­stead, he knuck­les ten­dons, ten­der arches. Sole maps dis­close mem­o­ries, habits, nerves dis­tended from fis­sures within. Stim­u­late crys­tal pointed or­gans, glands. A vast un­nerv­ing. Re­flex, I con­tain. Yes, I’m de­cep­tive—in vol­un­tary re­straint. Hand shields eyes as if it could quell throbs. Air-con­di­tioned chills. Heat swells, cold brit­tles. Good Morn­ing towel spreads, I cross arms (such po­si­tion­ing why I sleep with fists). Mahjong tiles click from the room be­side. Whine of ache drowns the chirp of Man­darin and ca­sual gam­bling. He shouts numbers into his phone. De­clares I’m rub­bing the For­tune God’s leg! Misses his luck by one digit. Where there is noth­ing there is ev­ery­thing. White oint­ment draws greasy cir­cles on calves.

Must be healthy. Didn’t flinch.

This place is sup­posed to be rife with ghosts and I have hardly en­coun­tered one. In parts of Sin­ga­pore, there is a feel­ing of age, an im­pli­ca­tion of haunt­ing. Only at night, I am vis­ited. It is brief, and no ghost is seen, but rather, felt.

I want to turn off this ghost. I know it’s not you.

Sin­ga­pore, con­fused in its rel­a­tive youth, senses a gap. Touch­points are sac­ri­ficed for im­pend­ing great­ness. Proud of her­itage, quick to lose it. Each visit, a new mall. Street level sites are miss­ing but I can’t name them. They were never etched in my mind. Some were sur­ren­dered for the new circle line MRT that snakes un­der­ground. There are shields on the plat­form, most likely to pre­vent sui­cides. I take the train to Haw Par Villa.

I am alone with a thou­sand eerie stat­ues and their prin­ci­ples. A rain­bow of tales, a Con­fu­cian Chi­nese-folk par­adise. Orig­i­nally named Tiger Balm Gar­dens, the moral-fan­ta­sy­land was built in 1937 by two

brothers with riches earned from their pop­u­lar cam­phor-oint­ment. Free en­try. A small treed hill. Life-sized fig­urines. A bat­tle be­tween fish-peo­ple. A snail-girl stuck in the dry earth. Armed mon­keys. A colos­sal crab with the face of a man. A young woman breast­feed­ing her fa­ther-in-law.

A blan­ket of heat sup­presses my abil­ity to breathe.

The theme park is de­serted. Is this sym­bolic?

Af­ter life. I cau­tiously en­ter the dark cave that holds the grue­some Ten Courts of Hell. Lit from be­low, griz­zly scenes of souls boiled, pounded, chopped. Af­ter life. Each court, a dif­fer­ent pun­ish­ment. To mis­use books re­sults in one’s body be­ing sawn in two. Sin­ners tied to posts, hearts and in­testines yanked, tongues cut. Hills and trees, made of knives. In the fi­nal court, the wheel of rein­car­na­tion and the wheel of for­get­ful­ness.

Mid­dle of the night. Stop sleep. When I was young, my fa­ther asked me why I was scared of ghosts, to which none of my an­swers sat­is­fied. Now, as I rest, the spirit nudges my arm. S’pore land is scarce, but they should know bet­ter than to build on hal­lowed ground. I nod. The city is quiet. I want to re­main in this half world, chant your name to beckon you here. Delu­sions, I want to trust. En­ter that space where the feel­ing of love over­comes the love of feel­ing. On the fringe, I rest on my stom­ach, arms un­der­neath—face in the pil­low. In­hale moist, cot­ton com­fort. Don’t sleep, don’t wake—fear of not dream­ing of you again.

Be­cause for­tune tell­ers like to wear black lah. Even in this heat. Glad you came. Don’t tem­ple look odd be­tween sky­scrapers? Look at that in­cense smol­der. Breathe it in. This god pro­tect S’pore from evil. Very nec­es­sary. He guide souls to un­der­world, but, as you know, not all are ready to make it back. They hang on. But let’s talk about you. Let me see your hands. Re­lax, re­lax. Ah, you’re sen­si­tive. Smart. Love lime­light. Must be one-of-a-kind but have hard time when pub­lic crit­i­cize you leh. You suf­fer ex­is­ten­tial sad­ness. Dark­ness draws you. Un­der this fin­ger you have a star—see it? Means you ex­pres­sive. Fol­low heart, in work, in house. Money not im­por­tant, you get what you need. The more luck comes to you, the more un­happy you are. Not good, not bad. Just. You know this but need another to re­mind you. Aiya, my hands are shak­ing now. I need a smoke.

When my mind emp­ties, it turns to you. My ethe­real room­mate tells me that she too longs for loved ones. She knows how I feel. I’m no longer both­ered by her com­pany. We know each other now. She cries softly, tells me that the Ja­panese mur­dered her fa­ther dur­ing the war. Even she doesn’t know where they left his body. I tell her she can hold my hand but I no longer feel her pres­ence.

Raf­fles Av­enue. Another star­less night. How will I nav­i­gate home with­out them? In­stead, mon­ster duri­ans glit­ter. In view: the he­lixshaped pedes­trian bridge, the gi­ant lo­tus, the trio of tow­ers pre­sent­ing a from-the-fu­ture ca­noe with the oc­ca­sional burst of lasers. En­croach­ing drone. A herd of Lam­borgh­i­nis flash a night­time rain­bow—orange, black, lime, red. A gust of ex­haust. At the base of the twin­kling skyscraped hub, be­low a colo­nial smudge, along the wa­ter’s edge, the statue of the Mer­lion purges into the bay.

In my dream, you de­clare I’ll al­ways know where to find you.

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