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.