For Which The First was Made

 

A novel

by

eToh

 

 

Copyright and Disclaimers: This is an orignal work by eToh and she reserves all rights to it. It is a work of fiction and the characters and events here are not intended to describe real persons and events. The novel takes place in Singapore and there are references to events which bear some connection to real events but the writer makes no claim to historical accuracy. It’s just a story, guys!

Copyright March, 2004

This novel is alternative and contains explicit descriptions of sex between adults of the same gender.

 

 

CHAPTER 1–Then

The papers in the sink are burning blood red, spurting reflected flames on the kitchen window. She has her back to me, framed in crimson.

I wonder if, in her haste to destroy it all, she might have mixed a love letter in the pile. A note on tissue that I had scribbled, perhaps. Seated at a roadside cafe, waiting for the first glimpse of her purposeful stride, her blonde hair glinting in the harsh noon-day sun. Knowing that the Chinese men near the entrance would look on in curious envy as she ignored them all and came straight to me, the insignificant girl at the corner table. Anticipating the rush of wet that still had not yet learnt to control itself. Savoring the sting of desire that always came. Gleefully writing it down, just to fuck with my own brain twice. Once in the pre-saging. And then again when she would actually appear.

I know she wouldn’t burn my words intentionally, wouldn’t lose them if she could. But she’s in a hurry. We’re only into the second box. The first took so long to sink into ash. And there are three more on the floor.

If they came now, driving up in their unmarked cars with the QX plates (as if everybody didn’t know that all unmarked police cars carried QX plates), banging on the door with their warrants, they would catch us red-handed. Bathed, bathed in red. Desperately trying to destroy the evidence that might destroy the life we had so recently built for ourselves.

She turns then, fear radiating from her. Grotequely, perversly like sex. Pulsing. I take her breasts suddenly, hard, twisting. I can see that it has happened for her too. The terror turned to aggressive desire. We both understand. We forgive. At that moment, pain seems the only thing that might reassure us that we are alive and vital still. Not some defeated dream waiting to drain away.

Her mouth is warm and wet through my thin t-shirt. My nipples tighten and stand up. I push her away so that I can lift the shirt, hungry to feel her tongue without the veil of cotton. She knows what I need even before I pull her back to me. Her teeth nip and I almost come immediately. Behind us, the crackle of paper crumbling arrests our heated fumbling for a second. In the pause, I want to tell her I love her. That if tonight they came for her and we never had more than these last few weeks, my body would not forget, my heart would not heal, my soul would never accept the imprint of another.

She groans my name. "Please. Now. Inside." My hand is grabbed, thrust against her shorts, so quickly soaked through. I forget all thought and slide in, I am barely there when her walls stretch taut and ridged. She is so close to the edge. I try to slow my fingers but she won’t let me, pushing against my hand until I give in. Give in to her, to the rhythmn of her orgasm, to my own incoherent cresting.

We hold each other as we sob and pretend the tears are happy. After I take her again, still standing in the middle of the kitchen, we return to feeding the blaze. We say no other words to each other that night. It takes us till dawn to burn it all.

Two days later, they serve the notice. They go to her office in the day. There is no drama. Just a police order served on a foreign journalist who is viewed as a trouble-maker for commenting on matters of domestic politics. They revoke her work permit and order her to leave the country within 24 hours. They take her notes and files, and even her precious laptop, but we know they won’t find what they want. Her editor, from the safety of Lexington Avenue, N.Y., N.Y., makes a half-hearted protest. As if this little Asian experiment in controlled democracy cares that the liberal Western media might trash it further. The magazine promises to pursue all available remedies on her behalf, but by then the deadline is upon us.

Isn’t it funny that when the moment actually comes, we concentrate on practicalities and logistics? I booked her flight to New York. She packed incredibly efficiently. We weren’t even late getting to the airport.

When you might as well be dead, everything becomes simple again.

 

CHAPTER 2 — Now

The peanuts were stale but the stewardess rocked. The one, salted Chinese. The other, sweet Thai (possibly Vietnamese). Her cross and her consolation.

Kris sighed. What was she doing on a flight to Singapore chasing down a new property when she had several documentary projects by proven houses waiting for her sign-off back in New York? True, the lure of Asian mystique probably had a year or two left before it went the way of Mafia exposes. And the proposal that ASEAN HQ emailed her did have potential — a no-holds-barred biography of a prominent local public personality. Who happened to be lesbian and, until now, semi-closetted. ASEAN HQ assured her that the subject was willing to co-operate. Fully. In this conservative Asian society, if the story really panned out, it would be a major coup for her network. Well, at least, that was the pitch.

But then again, she’d never seen anything from this particular Asian country that wasn’t earnestly sincere and stiltedly careful. Even Switzerland was sexier than Singapore. By a long shot.

Kris sighed again, popping a stale Chinese peanut in her mouth. And consoled herself with contemplating sweet Thai.

******

The humidity was like a burlap sack descending on her as she left the plane. After all her trips to this part of the world, she was still never prepared when it hit her, literally taking her breath away for a while. She could feel the flood of sweat run down the back of her blouse. She was going to need a shower. Quick.

Changi Airport was smooth and unobtrusive. She barely noticed the time it took to get from plane to cab rank. Although the country heavily taxed cigarettes and alcohol in its bid to maintain its puritanical image, it was always willing to milk the tourist buck for all it was worth. The duty-free shop was a well-oiled machine with pre-packaged sets of alcohol at the checkout counter featuring every conceivable combination of rum, vodka and chablis which met the total quota. Kris bought one just for good measure. Twenty minutes after the plane landed, seated comfortably in the back of a taxi speeding into the city, Kris had to admit grudgingly that Singapore did airports well. JFK at the best of times had been trying. After 9/11, it was an obstacle course.

The taxi driver chattered on in the local polyglot, a slightly guttural, clipped version of English that constantly slipped into other languages which Kris did not recognise. "You come from Hong Kong?" he asked anxiously.

"Do I look like I come from Hong Kong?" Kris teased. But when he simply blinked anxiously again, she obliged "America."

" Direct? No transit in Hong Kong?" he insisted.

"Frankfurt. Why the interest?"

"Sick people come from Hong Kong." he explained rather cryptically.

Kris shook her head in amusement. If there was a conspiracy theory to be had, trust a taxi driver to acquaint you with it. She checked her mobile for messages and smiled at the one from her mother.

"Go 4 spicy, honey. Don’t 4get pkge for E." Her mother had almost seemed more excited about this trip, her first to Singapore, than her. Breaking the unspoken rule of many years, she had driven into the city on a weekend night to have dinner with Kris the night before Kris’s flight.

"Why must you always pick steak and country music, dear? There’s a new Burnese restuarant on 78th that’s gotten great reviews, you know. Excellent curries, it seems." Cass Bretton, at 55, was always determinedly trying to get her oldest daughter to expand her cultural horizons. Admittedly, her elegant mother looked 40 and was the only person Kris knew who could carry off a Chinese cheongsam — the tight silk dress setting off her fair coloring and long legs. She was also the only person Kris knew who could wear a Chinese cheongsam to Harry’s Meathook and not look entirely out of place when Deana Carter crooned "I’m just a girl."

"I have an aversion to unidentifiiable vegetable matter in murky stews. I prefer my protein in openly bleeding muscle."

"You are an incorrigible throwback. You must get it from your Dad. He sends love. As do Damon and Cindy."

"I just saw you guys last weekend."

"That doesn’t mean we love you any less, silly."

"Yes, Mom," Kris grinned, settling goodnaturedly into the usual routine of affectionate chiding.

After ribeye (Kris’s) and sirloin (lean, Cass’s), her mother had dug into her bag.

"This is for your Auntie Ellen. The address and mobile are on the package. You can just get the hotel to send it to her if she’s too busy to meet up." If Kris didn’t know Cass better, she’d have sworn her mother was nervous. "Ellen can be very busy." Cass repeated for emphasis.

"Don’t worry. I shall stay out of her hair. Call. Arrange delivery. Send love. You can trust me."

"I know how you are, Kris."

"Really. And how’s that? Shy and retiring like you?"

"Just make sure she gets this. Please?"

Kris leaned across then and gave her fretful mother a quick hug. "I live to deliver. Stop worrying. Auntie Ellen will receive her Chrismas present as instructed. 9 months early this year."

All her life, Kris remembered, the box that would come in mid-December, bearing the Singapore postmark and colorful stamps. There would be gifts for her mom and dad, and something for each of the kids. Interestingly, the gifts were always appropriate, as if her mother’s friend, whom she had never met, knew what was happening in her life. At 15, the chunky early-model digital camera had seemed an unlikely extravagance even for someone who was obviously a close family friend but her mother had simply smiled and said, "Take some pictures of Cindy." That first shot had sucked her into a career fascinated with the capture and manipulation of images, the chronicling of visual tales. Her first short documentary had garnered her recognition as an up and comer in an industry of tyros. She had risen so quickly that she’d been press-ganged into management at the tender age of 26. She missed being behind the lens but she enjoyed nurturing new work. And she had an uncanny ability to pick the stories that stirred hearts, stimulated minds and picked up audience share. It was hard to argue against that kind of success.

Kris patted the small book-sized package in her back pack. She hoped Auntie Ellen wouldn’t be too busy to meet.

The taxi lurched to a sudden stop, jerking her from contemplation.

Jo was waiting for her curbside when the cab drew up to the tall, anonymous building in which her local office was housed. The taxi had barely stopped before she threw open the back door and plonked her lanky frame next to Kris’s.

"Change of plans. The local production company we’re working with can’t make it this afternoon. Power breakfast tomorrow instead." "Hyatt," she barked at the taxi driver, without pausing. Then turned back to Kris, "You must be tired. I’ll get you settled in at the hotel and brief you on the Bangkok financials over a beer. There’s a party tonight. You up to it, mate?"

An Australian who had lived in Singapore for close to 10 years, Jo was talented, resourceful and almost embarrasingly enthusiastic about Asian women. Kris and Jo had met several times, typically in Thailand, where their company had several active projects. Jo’s constant invitations to Singapore were peppered with descriptions from what appeared to be an extensive catalog of female companions whom Jo was sure Kris would like. Even without asking, Kris had a pretty good idea what kind of party Jo was talking about.

"Private, exclusive. Held just twice a month. Can you believe your luck? Good music. Really cute chicks. I guarantee you’ve never have seen so many Asian dykes in one place."

"I’ll take your word for it." Kris remarked drily.

"No joshing. And a few of them look like Joan Chen."

"In Wild Things or Crouching Tiger?"

"Wild Sides. And that was Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger. Also very hot. You should brush up on your Asian cinema."

"I should get a good shower and some profit margins on the Thai property."

"I can promise you at least one out of two," grinned Jo.

"You’re not getting into my bathroom."

"But I know some nubile young things who might..." Jo teased back, launching into an unlikely story that involved orchids, red peppers, two Indian girls and many sexual positions that Kris suspected were anatomically impossible.

Kris relaxed into her seat, letting the blonde go on.

Welcome to Singapore!

 

CHAPTER 3 — Just a Bit Later

By the time Kris and Jo were sipping latte and Heineken at the hotel coffee house, Kris was exhausted by the sexual possibilities that apparently lay beneath the surface of repressed probity. As Jo geared up for another account of tropical island lust, Kris leaned back in the plush leather armchair and surveyed her surroundings. Like so many five star hotels in Asian countries, this one tried to help the discerning Western traveller discern practically nothing. The objective was obviously to make a North American guest feel as if she had never stepped out from the midtown Hyatt in New York. If not for the ethnicity of the extremely attractive women at the front desk, Kris might have imagined that the 24 hour flight she’d just taken had brought her full circle to yet another American city. Even the sushi bar fronting the very expensive-looking restaurant featuring fusion cuisine was discretely designed for (oh just say it, Kris) white sensibilities.

Kris wondered what really went on underneath the bland welcome. Apparently, sex, sex and more sex, if Jo was to be believed.

"She conveniently had her tongue in my ear at that point. And she would announce the positions before demonstrating them. ... " Jo paused. "Are you listening to me?"

"I think so. You were talking about positions. Still. "

"The Karma Sutra, honey. Familiar with every single permutation. All eight hundred bloody over of them. She got me so hot just talking about them, I was creaming in my pants. It was fucking amazing. And she’s got friends."

Jo looked so eager, Kris didn’t have the heart to disabuse her. But the truth of the matter was that, for all her outward confidence and poise, Kris had never really been, well, sexually adventurous. Her career had kept her passionately engaged for most of her adult life. And the two women who had sexually engaged her, one while she was still at NYU film school during a hazily drunken encounter and the other whom she’d dated to please her group of well-meaning friends, had never really held her passion. So although Kris had known, without too much trauma, from a fairly early age, which team she batted for, she had come to accept that she was unlikely to ever make MVP.

"Look. I really am a little tired from the flight," she gave as an excuse. "I think I’ll just go up to my room, maybe take a nap. We can go over the Thai numbers over dinner."

"Why didn’t you say so earlier? And here I was thinking that you might be bored, coming from the Big Apple, with our piddling outback escapades." For the barest second, Jo’s cheery blue eyes darkened and Kris suddenly spied the uncertainty in them and understood.

How fragile we all are. So insecure behind the bravado. Ten years in what must seem to her to be an insignificant posting. How we all crave validation.

Kris leaned across the table impulsively and held Jo’s hands, "Hey. Sounds pretty hip to me. Don’t believe everything you read. Most of my friends would kill to have half the excitement you seem to be getting out here. "

The shadow lifted from Jo’s eyes, "Really, huh? You mean it’s not all dancing and debauchery in New York?"

"Hardly, my dear."

"Well, it’s definitely not boring here."

"I can tell. " Kris couldn’t stop the yawn that slipped through then. She shook her head, trying to dislodge the haze, and the ache she suddenly felt in her shoulders.

"OK. OK. Let’s get you to your room. I’ll head back to the office, pull together those numbers you keep harping on about and come get you later for the evening’s revelries." Jo signalled for the check and the handsome Malay waiter who had been standing discreetly by their table quickly and quietly melted away to get it.

"By the way, I highly recommend the sauna in the hotel. Work out those cricks in the neck."

A sauna. That sounded heavenly.

"Sounds like bliss," Kris admitted.

"Oh you bet." Jo’s natural exuberance had returned in full force as had her irrepressible talents as sexual tour guide. "By the way, the gym here has a real reputation."

"Oh?"

Jo nodded sagely signing the bill with a flourish, "The Tai-tais sometimes hunt there. Rich society women, usually Chinese. Looking for something on the side while their business conglomerate husbands play golf and keep mistresses. It’s an open secret. As long as you’re discrete, they’re often up to a little afternoon delight. It’s a nice arrangement. They get some fun. No obligations on either side. Too much to lose if it gets out. The other day, I heard ...."

Kris closed her eyes and let Jo sweep her along.

******

After Jo deposited her in the luxurious room, Kris decided to take a quick swim. The Hyatt’s pool was on the fifth floor, in a beatifully landscaped open-air garden that almost made you forget you were in the middle of a big city until you heard the background hum and honk of street traffic. There was no one else around except the buff pool attendant and a middle-aged Caucasian man who was unduly interested in listening to the pool attendant describe the hotel’s gymn facilities. Kris was content to let them flirt while they ignored her. The little pool didn’t really test her but it was good to get her limbs moving and the taut knot in her back had loosened up after 30 mini-laps. Some quality time in a sauna seemed a fitting way to wrap up the session, Kris thought as she towelled her thick straight dark hair.

The attendants at the sauna facilities were as pleasant, efficient and unobtrusive as all the other staff she’d met so far.

"Just one other person here, miss," smiled the girl with the unlikely name of "Camelia" on her tag as she showed Kris to the sauna, with its two heated pools and narrow stalls. "Let me know if you need anything."

The other person was a small, slim, Chinese woman who sat quietly, her face turned towards the wooden slatted walls, in one corner of the sauna. She might be asleep, she was so still.

Respecting her privacy, Kris chose a spot as far away as she could and settled in. She wondered if the woman was one of Jo’s tai-tais. The lazy heat soon calmed and overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes.

 

******

The feel of sweat seeping between her eyelashes made Kris open her eyes to wipe them. She’d almost dozed off in the warm, damp cabin, the hot steam rising off the coals. Jo had been right, at least in part. The Hyatt had a very nice sauna indeed.

Floating in that pleasurable no-mans-land between consciousness and sleep, Kris slowly became aware that her companion was no longer still nor asleep. Her face was not turned to the wall anymore. Heartshaped and delicate, the skin flawless, the bones fine, it was ageless. With her eyes closed, without any window to her experience or soul to give Kris any clues, she could have been 15. Or 40. She was beautiful.

It also gradually became uncomfortably clear that the woman thought Kris was asleep and herself unnoticed. Kris knew she shouldn’t stare but there was something hynoptic about the slow, spiral movement of the woman’s hand underneath her towel, the thigh golden-tanned against fluffy white cotton. In the cocooned silence of the sauna, Kris could hear every catch of breath, could sense every twitch of pleasure, could feel every tightening.

The painful release of moisture caught Kris by surprise. Unable to stop herself, drawn in some warped way to want to share the moment with this stranger, she slid her fingers under the flap of her own towel and found herself ready. In some faraway part of her brain, she registered the thought that she was never ready like this. It usually took quite a bit of foreplay to prime her and even then she preferred to bring her partner to orgasm first, letting the thrill of that moment bring her closer to the point from which she could fall. Sex had always been somewhat deliberate for Kris.

Now, suddenly, just looking at a stranger touch herself had made her wet. Not just wet. But slick, thick and urgent. Her clitoris so hard and grown so large that she didn’t recognise her own body when she touched it. Just catching a shadow of pleasure rush across the woman’s face made her walls start to clench of their own accord, her buttocks rubbing against the wooden seat now slippery with her juice. She started to match her movements to the woman’s, their hands moving in rhythm. Now faster. Now slowing down. Kris was so aroused that, within seconds, she was poised to fall. She wanted to come so badly, she had to will herself to stay with her companion. And still the sensuous spiral continued its slow teasing torture.

It occured to Kris in one of the few moments when her mind managed to re-assert itself that Jo had been entirely right. These Asian women were hot. And that she owed Jo an apology for doubting, even for a second, the veracity of her sexual exploits. But her mind quickly lost the struggle and Kris left all the thinking behind. Left it behind to follow the beautiful stranger as her pace quickened, her hips thrusting, her head thrown back. Close now.

God, let it be soon. Give me permission to surrender.

Almost. Almost.

"Please." Kris whispered. Or was it just in her own head? I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Let me.

She must have heard her. Her hand thrust in. Hard. Once. Twice. Deep. Kris joined her. Oh God.

They both stilled at the same moment, the current of orgasm passing like electricity from one to the other. Joined. Then the tremors began. Simultaneously. Uncontrollably. From deep within them both. Kris had never felt so abandoned and unrestrained before. It took everything she had not to scream. She couldn’t stop herself from shaking. The bench shook.

The stranger’s eyes flew open at the movement and locked on Kris’. Unguarded and uncertain, mindful of Jo’s advice that these tai-tais wanted nothing more than fun (God knows, what just happened feels too raw to be fun!) , Kris gave what she hoped was a nonchalent smile.

She was totally unprepared for the response.

In one glance, the stranger took everything in. The rape of her privacy. Her cruel exposure. Kris’ hand still inside herself. Not yet withdrawn from their connection.

The dark orbs filled with seering desolation. They are sloe-eyed. Kris thought.

She caught the quick flash of angry tears. And a deep pain so abraded that Kris knew. This woman was not 15. This woman had already lived a lifetime of agony. Kris lowered her eyes in shame. When she raised them again, the woman was gone, leaving a faint scent of jasmine and arousal behind.

 

Chapter 4 — That Evening

CNN brought a whiff of home but the local station provided answers to cryptic remarks by taxi drivers.

Kris woke from a restless nap (during which her dreams were splashed with erotic, surreal images of flesh and fever) to find that she had left the TV turned on and the evening news playing.

The headlines on the local channels were uniformly concerned with a mysterious ailment which had struck down 3 travelling companions recently returned from Hong Kong. They had suffered from symptoms that initially merely indicated an aggressive strand of the influenza virus — high fever, dry cough, breathing difficulties. But, within days, their condition had deteriorated. The three women had checked themselves into Singapore’s leading communicable disease hospital several days ago. Two had died within 24 hours, their lungs collapsing. The third was in the intensive care unit and unlikely to last the night. That news alone would have been tragic. The terror came in the suggestion that the disease was highly contagious and that several other persons who had come into contact with the 3 were exhibiting early signs of infection. The government statements were cautious and measured but tension was apparent.

The World Health Organization had put a name to the disease. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS, had come to Singapore. It was already killing in Vietnam, China and Hong Kong.

Kris frowned to herself as she dressed for dinner, drawing the tight singlet over her lean torso. She wondered if she should give Cass a call just to reassure her that everything was fine. Kris knew her mother. For someone whose own life was a study in independance and devil-may-care, Cass had remarkably dubious double standards when it came to her children. Not that Kris had ever given Cass cause for much concern. The family joke was that Kris was born an adult. Always considered and measured. Even the few scraps she got herself into, in hindsight, were despairingly mild — the sort that parents might view with indulgent amusement rather than panic. So, with her usual good sense, Kris had come to accept Cass’s apparent inconsistencies with good grace. She suspected that she would be equally schizophrenic if she ever had kids. Lord knows her younger siblings had chafed at what they saw to be her own over-protective attitude towards them. Comes with the territory when you’re the over-achieving, always correct, older sister, she acknowledged.

The hotel phone rang. It was Jo.

"Lobby in 5 minutes, you slouch. Cab meter’s running."

"On my way."

Kris grabbed a jacket and decided to postpone her call to Cass. No point worrying her about nothing.

The lift descended smoothly down the floors. She felt an involuntary twinge of excitement as the number 5 lit up for a second. Her pulse quickened, and she saw again the stranger’s face in orgasm — the ridged muscles of her slender neck standing out against the delicate, golden complexion. It was fanciful and out of character. It was disturbingly exhilerating. It was that damned photographer’s eye of hers. Too vivid by far. She was thankful that there was no one else in the lift to see the flush and feel the quickened heartbeat, and very grateful as well for Jo’s persistent normalcy, greeting her as the doors slid open, with a quick hug and detailed agenda, saving her from further embarassment.

Or so she hoped.

She tried to ignore the throb of revived desire which suggested otherwise. And the underlying sensation of anticipation for which she could find no reason that she was prepared to admit to.

It’s just the heat. She told herself crossly. And, stepping into the sweaty dusk, almost believed it.

******

Kris didn’t know if it was the jet lag or sexual haze but the evening seemed to pass in a blur. Jo must have been her mother’s doppelganger because she too believe in going for spicy when it came to food. The taxi whisked them to a popular hawker center — an outdoor food court where the cuisine reflected the island’s multi-cultural heritage. There were soups and noodles from different provinces of China which confirmed that the Chinese knew how to eat practically every single part of any animal unfortunate enough to get within cooking range. There was Indian prata — a pizza like pancake eaten with curry — and Malay satay — caramelized meat slices on skewers grilled over an open coal fire. All this consumed in 40 heat (Celsius not Fahrenheit). The tangy lime juice did nothing to soothe the numbing bite of the chilli peppers that featured in all the cuisines and the local desserts topped with mounds of shaved ice barely took a degree or two off the sea of heat in which she was submerged.

By 10.30 pm, Kris was literally wilting but Jo was just getting started. "One Fullerton," she barked at yet another obliging taxi driver. Kris considered countermanding the order with a request to be let off at her hotel but she was too busy leaning forward into the noisy air conditioner in the car. By the time she felt human again, the taxi had reached its destination, a harborfront building which housed restaurants and clubs. The promenade overlooked Singapore’s busy port where, further offshore, twinkled the lights from tankers, liners, containers and smaller boats anchored for the evening. Behind them the city’s business district loomed, some of its occupants only now leaving their offices to stroll down to the water’s side for beer or coffee.

"There’s often a long waiting line at eleven. That’s when the show starts," Jo explained, "so it’s good to get here a little earlier."

Kris’s sluggish senses slowly awoke to the fact that there was indeed a line snaking from a discreet entrance. Singapore’s lesbian population, invisible for the most part during the day (or at least quietly low-key), was obviously not averse to displaying itself in the evenings. Most of the women in the queue were Asian but a few were caucasions, presumably expatriates like Jo or visitors like Kris. Many of them seemed to know each other well. Quite a few waved hello to Jo. They chatted happily while the line inched its way. The atmosphere was suggestive without being cruisy. Passers-by gave curious, sometimes knowing, glances but mostly left the group alone.

"Some nights the police come and watch. Just to let us know they know. Homosexual sex is still technically illegal and every few years, law enforcement takes it into its head to entrap some luckless chap and prosecute him. But in between, the government mostly lets us alone and, more recently, there’s a pragmatic acceptance that the country needs to shed its anti-gay attitude if it is to attract talented foreigners to live and work here. It’s a bizarre seesaw between intolerance and symbiosis."

"You’re plugged in. No pun intended!" Kris qualified when she saw Jo’s lascivious smile.

"It’s a small community. The saliva trail rarely exceeds a couple of degrees of separation. To mix my metaphors."

"Unforgiveably." Kris agreed.

"I’ll make it up to you with a drink upstairs. Come on. I know the organizers."

Jo whisked Kris to the front of the line where they endured a little good-natured heckling by the crowd behind them for jumping queue.

Upstairs, it could have been generic club. The air dark and smoky. The drinks flowing. The music trans. Except that everywhere Kris looked she saw Asian women. Of all shapes and sizes. Some indeed looked remarkably like modern versions of the demure Chinese heroine in a Hong Kong martial arts flick. Others had turned the stereotype of Asian androgyny on its head and walked around like young teenage boys, in their loose shirts and baggy jeans. Some of the younger couples exhibited extreme polarity, the femme in tight, skimpy sun dresses, the butch barely distinguishable as a woman. In a corner of the club was a small group that kept to themselves. Their dressing and demeanour suggested that they were slightly older than the frenetic crowd on the dance floor.

Jo pressed a beer into Kris’s hands.

"Come on. Drink up. Then, let’s wake you up."

Against her better judgment, Kris downed the mug in one swallow and allowed Jo to lead her into the middle of the gyrating mass. Jo was a sensuous dancer who teased with just the right amount of irony to keep things on the right side of friendly. Ordinarily, Kris would have enjoyed the uncomplicated exercise and harmless titillation. But tonight was different. Like a bad movie track, her mind kept replaying the afternoon’s encounter. As she bumped into bodies and pushed against flesh on the packed floor, her unusually hyperactive libido flared to attention. Every touch, however innocent, made her breath catch. What is the matter with me?

After several dances, which included an enthusiastic rendition of Lady Marmalade and two remixes of Don’t Call me Baby, Kris was swimming through a pervasive fog of sensation. Her singlet was soaked with perspiration and rivulets of sweat coursed down her face. The feeling of being slightly out of control, unable to predict what she might do next and reckless of the consequences was so unfamiliar as to seem irresistible. When Jo swapped her for a petite femme dancing next to them, she found herself grinding hips with a tall, muscular butch who took her dazed passivity as an invitation to slide her hard thigh betwen Kris’s and initiate some dirty dancing. Kris gave in to her imagination and let herself believe that the hand which had found its way to her breasts belonged to a slim beauty with haunted eyes. Her body arched and she ached for closer contact, much to the satisfaction of her companion. Her companion bent towards her neck, licking the moisture in slow, deliberate strokes.

Then, Kris had the strangest sensation that someone was watching her.

She raised her eyes.

In the quiet corner where the older women were, her afternoon lover (could she really call her that?) stood, looking straight at her. Unlike most of the other women in the club, she was casually dressed. As if she had just put on the pair of black jeans and white shirt carelessly, without any need or desire to be noticed. Yet her very simplicity and indifference to appearance were stunning. Kris wondered how she could have ever mistaken this woman for an empty socialite.

Their eyes caught on a glance and held. The stranger’s look contained bitterness, contempt and something that felt, unaccountably, like hurt. Kris groaned at how she must look to the woman — first the voyeuristic sexual encounter and now for all intents and purposes she was practically making out on the dance floor. She felt a deep need to explain herself and wondered where that came from. She opened her mouth in a futile attempt to reach the woman above the deafening din of the bass beat. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping for. Conciliation. Forgiveness. Connection. She just knew that some part of her soul was rending at the accusation in the stranger’s face.

I can’t let her believe it was ... What? Meaningless? Anonymous?

Her dance companion chose that moment to grab her and pivot her around. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the stranger turn and try to head for the exit. Her friends caught hold of her. Intense words were exchanged. She shook them free. That moment’s delay gave Kris the chance she needed. Answering the impulses she could not recognise, she excused herself and headed after the woman. Her tiredness and confusion, the alcohol and smoke, all conspired together. As she weaved her way through the milling crowd, intent on keeping the slight white-shirted frame in sight, she was light-headed.

She saw a flash of white turn left at the exit and push past a door in the dark corridor. She followed unheedingly, tripping in her hurry, falling through the door onto a startled body. In her final lucid moment, she registered where she was. Oh God, we’re in a washroom. Can this get any tackier? Then the woman turned and they were face-to-face, and Kris lost all comprehension.

Up close, Kris could see the lines of strain that belied her youthful appearance, the dark rings of exhaustion under her eyes, and the sheathed, lithe power that contradicted the earlier impression of frailty.

The silence between them stretched. From outside, the dancebeat penetrated into the narrow cubicle. Not heard as such. Rather, like a pounding on her heart. Its regularity contrasted with the erratic cadence of her own heartbeat. And still no words would come.

Finally, as if tried beyond endurance, the woman spoke first.

"Aren’t you satisfied? What more can you take?" Her voice, llike everything else about her, was unexpected. Low, husky, impeccably accented.

"I’m so sorry." Kris blurted out wretchedly.

"Why? Was I not good enough for you?" Cutting. Bitter.

"I didn’t mean... I didn’t think..."

"You surprise me. Surely thinking has nothing to do with this." In one quick move, the stranger locked the cubicle behind Kris and pinned her against the door. Her head only came up to Kris’s eyes but Kris felt overpowered. "Or this." A demanding hand pushed between her legs. The contact shot through Kris’s body. Her legs spread. Awkwardly. She felt herself sliding down against the door, her hands stretched back to support herself, her lower back muscles tightening painfully in the effort to keep herself from falling. Totally undone. Or so she thought. Until she saw the barely contained desire in her lover’s eyes, and shattered entirely.

"I... " There were so many things she needed to explain before this went any further.

"Yes?" Quizzically. The hand now teasing. Lightly feathering down her zipper, creating ripples that radiated through her center. The other hand (Oh God!) slipping under the wet shirt, brushing the goose bumps alive in a trail that led tantalizingly close to her nipples and then meandered frustratingly away. (Touch them.). The harsh scrape of the zip being pulled down burst like a bright halo in her head, as Kris lost track of which sense was feeling what. Then there was only one feeling, concentrated in her clit, as the stranger eased her fingers past the band of her panties into the welcoming warmth. She played with her. Choosing her strokes with agonizing calculation. The frisson of almost-touch. The ambush of flick-pain. The lull of comfort-caress. And then the demand for control — squeezing, milking her shaft. Kris heard a voice begging for them all. It was weak and needy. It had to be someone else. She never yielded like this.

The stranger’s face was a breath away. Throughout, she had not touched Kris with her lips. Distancing herself, it appeared, deliberately. Why? Kris could bear no more. She leaned forward and kissed the woman. The connection was immediate and compelling. It lit a flame between them that flared in the touch of tongue on tongue. It ate up all the air, till they were gasping. Kris let go first, the taste of salt, cigarettes and something like cloves still in her mouth.

"Take me," Kris whispered brokenly, finally admitting her own devastation.

And as suddenly as the storm of passion descended it seemed to dissipate, leaving only contrition. The fingers gentled. Compassionate. Steady thrusts offering her the release she sought. In seconds, she claimed it. Screaming. Or something like that. Almost hitting her head against the door but not before the other fingers, also gentle now, shielded the blow, pulling her face to rest on a shoulder. Where she could feel the pulse beating frantically as she collapsed.

"Shh."

Her hands fumbled weakly, wanting to pleasure, but spent and inept. Like the rest of her.

"Shh. It’s okay."

They stayed there for a long time. She, cradled. The fever draining from them gradually. After what seemed forever, the stranger pulled back and caressed her face tenderly (Tenderly. What an incongruous word for this.)

"We should go." She said, smiling sadly. She started to say something else. But stopped. "Can you take care of yourself?"

How can I ever know anything with certainty again?

Kris nodded.

The stranger released her hold on Kris. The deprivation was palpable. The stranger opened the door to a line of curious women. The blast of music shook Kris. Was it her imagination again? Or did she really hear the words?

"I’m sorry too."

CHAPTER 5 — The Morning After

Be merciful. Kill me now.

Kris was usually disgustingly cheerful in the morning but, on this particular one, she would have preferred disembowelment to consciousness. Her head throbbed, her body ached and her jumbled state of mind galled her. And that was leaving aside her jangled nerves, including some she never knew she possessed, all of which hadn’t stopped standing on end.

Jo had been subdued when Kris emerged from the toilet, disheveled and disassembled.

"It’s the project. There may be a slight hitch."

"Oh?" asked Kris, thankful for a conversational subject that didn’t involve sharp questioning about her prolonged absence. Her body still tingled, like it was alight. She marveled that no one could see the sparks. "What’s happened?"

"Jay was here." Jo offered, unhelpfully.

"Jay?" her bewilderment was real, even if it wasn’t related to anything Jo was saying.

"Don’t worry. We’ll deal with it tomorrow. Ready to go?"

The ride back to the hotel had been quiet, both women caught up in their own thoughts. Kris had stumbled into her room, stripped off the clothes that smelled of sex, taken a cold shower that did nothing to douse the heat inside her and fallen into a troubled sleep.

And now, hardly four hours later, she had to drag herself awake. At least there were problems to deal with, deal to make. Anything to take her mind off the subject of her dreams.

The Starbucks cafe along the main shopping drag was yet another "Am I still in Kansas, Toto?" touch. Unsettling evidence of universal sameness even as Kris struggled to steady her emotional bearings.

Jo was drinking a Grande Moccachino and reading the Straits Times from behind her Nike sunglasses. "The third one died," she announced as Kris eased her tender frame into the rattan chair. "Overnight. The third SARS patient died. The Health Ministry is talking quarantine and drastic nation-wide measures. Apparently, there are quite a few new cases. Several healthcare workers who had been in the same wards as the patients before everyone realized how contagious they were. It may get intense. We’re all supposed to check our temperatures. First sign is a high fever."

Kris shrugged, wincing at the sudden movement. Maybe that’s it? I have SARS? Lord knows, there’s no other rational explanation.

Jo’s mobile beeped and she checked the incoming message with the manual dexterity of a pro. "Shireen is on her way. Parking. Latte for you?"

Kris nodded. She didn’t want to challenge her brain to come up with any sentences, complete or otherwise, in its current state. If her track record over the past 24 hours was anything to go by, her vocal chords were likely to betray her and beg for sexual favors inappropriate to a business meeting. She checked her own messages, pleased to see that Auntie Ellen had replied. "Come for dnr and conversatn! We r excited to finally meet you." We? Cass had never mentioned a husband or family and for some reason Kris had always assumed that her mother’s friend was single. She hit the reply button "Will be there. 6.30."

The big mug of latte went down like much-needed comfort food.

*****

Shireen Pereira was long and lanky. Her family was second generation Singaporean, originally hailing from Northern India. That accounted for her relatively fair complexion and Aryan features. Kris wasn’t sure what accounted for the slight blush as she gave Jo a decorous peck on the cheek in response to Jo’s big bear hug.

Shireen was the creative force behind a small TV production company, eager to break into the international market. The local market for documentary work was limited. There were only two major media groups licensed to broadcast in the country. They had their own production facilities but sometimes commissioned independent companies for programmes. The independents often went for months without a live project in the pipeline. It kept them lean and hungry, and it wasn’t a formula for expansion. A contract with a Discovery or Nat Geo or a company like Kris’s could make all the difference. But only the best local houses made the leap.

Kris found herself taking an immediate liking to the cool, poised woman.

Jo set the stage. "Kris will need a detailed proposal from you before she can give a final go-ahead but we like what we have seen so far. Maybe you can tell us what the current state of play is."

"The proposed subject of this documentary is a prominent Singaporean." The slight accent, a little British, a little Indian, was musical. "She is a lawyer who has dedicated her career to public service. She was active in starting up various pro bono programmes that help ordinary citizens with limited financial means gain access to legal advice, especially in disputes against the various government-linked entities that dominate our property, utilities and employment markets. Although the tradition of providing free legal assistance to the poor is well established in North American legal systems, it was quite an achievement here. She’s also been a vocal but savvy critic of government policy and is as seen as one of the few trusted independents, whose views are respected by both civil society and the establishment. There’s some talk that she is being considered for the bench. It would be quite remarkable if she were indeed made a judge, given her personal circumstances. Singapore is big on its public servants conforming to a conservative vision of model family — husband, wife, two kids. As a single woman, and one who hasn’t exactly advocated a conventional lifestyle, she would be an unusual candidate." Shireen grinned, "She also photographs well and is an animated speaker. She’ll make a very attractive subject."

"And she wants to come out? Now?" Kris asked.

"She’s never actively projected herself as straight, unlike some other public figures I won’t mention. And there’s always been talk. But she’s also guarded her private space jealously. However, with the judicial appointment possibly in the works, she feels it’s time to be clear about herself. It’s a hugely courageous move, in my view. I know that many of her friends have cautioned her against it."

"She doesn’t have a partner?"

Shireen hesitated slightly. "Not as far as I know." Jo and Shireen exchanged glances. "She originally intended to write a book. In fact, I have a draft of some early chapters. But when I pitched this idea, she was open to it. A TV programme, broadcast on an international station, would have a great impact."

"Well, as Jo said, it sounds promising. Of course, we’ll need a better sense of your intended treatment and a rough storyboard."

Shireen patted her briefcase. "It’s all here."

"So? Let me have it," Kris smiled "New York would love to see this."

Shireen paused. "There is a slight hitch."

Kris sighed. "Tell me."

"She needs a bit more time. To get permission."

"Uh huh?"

"She wants to do this right and that means naming names, hiding nothing. She had expected, initially, to get all the consents by now."

Kris laughed. "She’s definitely a lawyer. Probably has a form for this?"

Shireen smiled. "A very good one actually."

"But?"

"I heard from Jay last night." Jay again.

Jo nodded. "There’s apparently one important person who is still thinking about this. She won’t go ahead unless she gets this final consent."

"And?"

"She expects it soon. Maybe a week or two?" Shireen nodded at Jo’s question. "Thereabouts."

Kris felt the letdown "So we can’t do much else on this trip?"

Shireen was apologetic. "I’m sorry. We really expected everything to be sewed up by now. And we both only learnt what was happening last night, when it was too late to re-schedule."

Jo gave Kris a smile "It’s an excuse for you to come visit again? You seemed to be having a good time last night." She said half-playfully but with a slightly watchful expression. Kris shook her head warningly. I should have known it was just a temporary reprieve. She’s going to be on to me with questions like a limpet.

Shireen reached into her briefcase. "Look. I made a copy of her book for you. She’s used pseudonyms and glossed over some details so it won’t give you a full flavor of the whole story. But it’s a cracking read even as it is."

"I don’t suppose you could arrange for us to meet. I might be able to persuade her."

Shireen shook her head firmly. "She’s a friend. I know it complicates things but I can’t in good conscience pressure her into exposing herself before she is really ready. She has a lot to lose here. I’m not sure you understand..."

Kris thought about everything she had seen since arriving. She acknowledged the fairness of Shireen’s position. "A girl’s got to try...," she conceded wryly.

"Doesn’t she?" Shireen agreed contemplatively, looking at Jo.

Kris took the slim binder that Shireen had placed on the table and dropped it into her knapsack. Something to read on the plane home.

Shireen got up to go.

"I guess we’ll stay in touch? Through Jo?"

"Yup. And I’ll give the book a read first chance I get."

Jo walked Shireen to her car.

When she returned, the Mochacappucino seemed to have kicked in and she was her usual bouncy self. "What a babe, huh?"

Kris had to laugh. Jo’s transparent good spirits were a welcome respite from deeper ruminations. "You are incredible, you know that?"

"All my women say so," winked Jo. "Now how about hauling out that laptop and going over those Excel spreadsheets I emailed you on the Thai project budget."

The rest of the morning passed in a straightforward session of operating expenses, capital investment and profit shares. It was good to be back on terra firma.

 

CHAPTER 6 — Then, When it Began

The year I was saved from an invisible life, I fell in love with Kay.

Growing up gay in Singapore is about standing outside yourself and watching a simulacrum inhabit your body, your actions, your words. You are never really inside yourself. You can’t afford to be. Your love is illegal. Your society condemns it. Unlike minorities of ethnicity or disability or poverty, you can hide. And so you do. Invisible.

My simulacrum did a pretty good job of projecting a me that everyone might love. I came from a solid middle-class background. My parents were teachers during an era when the government’s mantra of meritocracy still worked. Their own relatively poor backgrounds had not stood in the way of their advancement as young professionals, once they demonstrated their academic abilities. Theirs was the rising professional class in the early years of independence. We had a nice house with a garden, today a luxury in land-scarce Singapore, and books on every shelf.

I had inherited their intelligence and excelled at schoolwork, topping my class every year, building a portfolio of acceptability. I was active in extra-curricular activities and just naughty enough not to be boring. I was also secretly in love with the every member of our all-girl school’s competition-winning singing group. There was Karen who played the piano like an angel and Tina, Serene, Mei Ching and Shan who had the voices to match. That was when I was in Secondary 1 and they in their final year of Secondary School. The next year, it was the debating club president.

My parents were evangelical Christians and I was damned. I knew this with a certainty that laced every youthful crush with poison. Self-loathing would be the wrong word to describe my existence because loathing requires some acknowledgement. Instead I hid myself even from myself.

What you may have read in the public record is true. I got a government scholarship to the national Law School and graduated near the top of that class too, playing basketball for the University and converting my obsession with lyrical sopranos into a decent stint as the University’s choir leader. Upon graduation, I joined one of the country’s top law firms, hefting papers for one of our most talented litigators whose silver tongue and aggressive tactics were always in demand.

Chronicled only in my unpublished record was the destructive pattern of constrained loving that continued throughout my growing up years. Always inappropriate. Never declared. Except in halting poems that hinted at a fire no one would assume from meeting me. I had become expert at invisibility. I even let my mother persuade me to grow my hair long and get it permed. It went with the cheap suit, black pumps and brandless cosmetics I wore to work. Those days, catching my reflection in mirrors would throw me, sometimes.

My boss was representing a tycoon accused of insider trading in his company’s shares. The case attracted a lot of media attention because it was the first brought by a newly-set-up crack investigative unit tasked with regulating our fledgling securities market. The tycoon was outwardly unassuming. And filthy rich. Underneath the veneer of humility, he threw his money into his defense and some of his weight as well. We young associates pretended we didn’t hear the screamed obscenities muffled behind the heavy teak doors of the partner’s palatial office. I had to wonder if the funds he was pouring into our law firm had indeed come from some monkey business on the stock market. My boss didn’t mind, of course.

She was a reporter for a foreign magazine and every day she sat in the front row of the "viewing section" while the tycoon’s trial got bogged down by forgetful prosecution witnesses and artful applications by my boss. The courts press corps was a friendly bunch. The local newspapers usually assigned young rookies to cover the snatch thefts and molests. Multi-million-dollar commercial crime cases and murder called for the big guns. The older, gray-haired newsmen. Kay seemed very young among them, her fair head always craned forward in focused attention. I noticed her, of course, from the very beginning. In my other heart.

Her wrap-up piece on the tycoon was incisive but fair. The tycoon didn’t like the suggestion that his acquittal had been more technical than substantive. "Ball-busting bitch," was one appellation. She contacted our law firm for some details before publishing that story. My boss was too busy to entertain her questions and told me to handle her.

On such little moments, our lives turn.

She asked to meet me for coffee. She had quite a few questions. I brought a briefcase of court documents with me, mindful of the need to be accurate. "Watch these foreign journalists. They can be tricky. They have their own agenda." my boss warned. "Client needs to come out looking good in this one. He’s already being crucified in the local papers."

We met at a cafe just around the corner from my office. Later we would meet there often. I remember how she looked as she walked up that first day, her blonde bob swinging, the khakis and shirt unrepentantly casual, for that time.

We ended up talking for hours. Her questions were sharp but never crossed the line of professionalism. She told me later that I played my cards just right, helpful with information, careful with positioning, articulate with justifications. I honestly do not remember much. I certainly do not remember when the conversation slid beyond work into more personal matters. But I do remember that I was captivated.

She was American. Just 25, older than me by a mere year. A scholarship student too, who had distinguished herself so well that the top international magazine had snapped her up and sent her overseas. In the last two years, she had covered everything from fashion trends to political changeovers in neighboring ASEAN countries. She had taken part in political marches, once at the risk of some personal physical danger. To my naive ears, it sounded glamorous and exciting. She challenged my easy assumptions about my own life. Questioned the political price paid for the economic miracle that was independent Singapore. She had so many thoughts. They weren’t exactly new. But they had never been so close. Growing up in Singapore is also about being de-politicized. Until Kay, that had seemed an acceptable compromise for the undeniable creature comforts provided by a strong government.

She felt so adult to my child.

I was very late getting back to work that afternoon. And caught all the flak when the article came out and didn’t really whitewash the tycoon. "What the hell were you doing with that cunt all that time?" screamed the tycoon. Somehow from the moments with Kay, I found the courage to stand my ground. "I would prefer you didn’t use that kind of language." I said grimly, to the consternation of my partner.

A few weeks later, in the course of a routine review, he gave me the requisite notice under the terms of my employment. I had been cut loose from the life I had expected for myself.

But by then, it didn’t matter. Kay had seen me.

*******

Kris thoughtfully closed the manuscript on that first chapter. Well. There’s definitely a story there. She couldn’t wait to get to the rest but she had to get going or she would be late for tea.

When she realized that her business that trip had been curtailed, Kris had gotten on the phone and re-scheduled her plans. The hotel concierge had booked her on a very late flight out that evening and she had moved forward her appointment with Auntie Ellen to tea. Her bags were packed. She’d checked out and left the luggage with the bellhop. With a little judicious time management, she’d easily wrap up all her chores and be on her way by midnight.

Right on schedule, the taxi drew up and smoothly ferried her to the small walk-up apartment that corresponded to the address meticulously written by her mother on the package. During the ride, she felt a sudden pang of longing. But she shook it off. Maybe I’ll find myself having hot sex all the time from now on! Yeah. Riiight.

The door was opened on just one buzz. Auntie Ellen was a handsome older woman in her mid-50s, with strong features and an unmistakable air that didn’t require the shorts and oxford button-down for confirmation. Auntie Ellen’s a dyke! Maybe that’s why Mom was a little weird that night at dinner. She’s never said anything about this. Cass had never had any problems with her daughter’s sexuality but they had never talked much about the subject. Kris had put it down to Cass’s innate confidence that Kris knew how to take care of herself and the low likelihood that Kris would indulge in anything other than the safest of sexual practices.

The older woman wrapped Kris in a warm hug. "Welcome to Singapore! I’m so sorry you’re running off tonight. But I hope you don’t intend this to be your first and last trip to our shores."

She led Kris into the modest living room that was sparsely but elegantly furnished in natural woods and graced with plants. On the far wall was a bank of bookshelves, crammed double deep with books.

"We’ve looked forward to this ever since Cass emailed that you might be visiting. " She turned to what appeared to be the bedrooms and called. "Honey. Stop working. Get off the phone. Kris is here."

Kris followed her movement and froze.

"Kris. This is my housemate. Janice."

All the breath left her.

Standing in the doorway, equally stunned, was the stranger from the sauna.

 

CHAPTER 7 — Late Afternoon Tea

Tea was actually coffee. Done local-style, roasted with sugar and margarine and brewed sludge-thick.

Tea was uncomfortable.

Somewhere between catching Auntie Ellen up on what Cindy and Damon were doing these days and conveying her mother’s warm regards, Kris ran out of reasons to keep her eyes fixedly on the black coffee in her cup. Her only consolation was that Janice was equally distracted. She sat out the conversation, leaning back in the loveseat and paying a lot of attention to her mobile, which was constantly flashing incoming messages. On the sofa, with her body ostensibly turned towards Ellen, Kris could nevertheless feel the hairs on her neck standing whenever there was the slightest movement from the loveseat beside her. The worst thing was that, even when confronted with this conclusive evidence of the total impropriety of her actions (She’s Auntie Ellen’s lover for God’s sake), she knew her discomfort could only partially be attributed to embarrassment. She squirmed. And regretted it, when her arousal rubbed against her jeans.

There was also something else. A vague unease that wasn’t directed at her but flowed between the other two women. Shit. Don’t tell me she knows about yesterday but doesn’t realize it was me? Do they have an open relationship? Something felt wrong about her assumptions. But she couldn’t work it out. It wasn’t just the age difference. Almost twenty years, she would guess. There was something in the dynamic between them, close like partners but not intimate. Nothing added up.

"Chocolate cake?" Ellen offered, oblivious to Kris’s confused thoughts. She got up, shifting the sofa. The movement rubbed Kris’s clit against her jeans again. Kris almost jumped off the seat. The tensing beside her indicated that her reaction had not escaped notice. Kris wanted to curl up somewhere and die.

Tea was very uncomfortable

*****

After half an hour of deadly, stilted conversation, Kris feared that Auntie Ellen must think her unmannered and inarticulate. She certainly would have. They had exhausted the convenient topics of polite conversation much too quickly. She learnt that Ellen’s little solo legal practice was doing well ("Enough so I could close early for the afternoon!"), and that Ellen and Janice were not planning to visit the U.S. anytime soon. They heard how the entire Bretton family had spent the last Christmas in Hawaii.

Interestingly, neither woman asked about the TV project that had brought her to Singapore. The one time Ellen seemed to be heading in that direction, Kris thought she felt Janice shake her head very slightly. Kris didn’t mind. In fact, she was somewhat relieved. She wasn’t sure how much she could say about the project without giving away information that might inadvertently identify its subject. And after this morning’s discussion, she didn’t want to complicate matters further.

So after half an hour, they were stuck in awkward silence, treading water. The only question she really wanted to ask would have gotten her thrown out or worse. Does she make you scream too, when you come?

It was excruciating.

Suddenly, Janice rose from her seat, without any excuse, and made towards the bedroom.

Kris felt a thick, choking surge of anger. She was the one who had knowingly cheated on her partner. She was the one who should have held back last night. She was the one looking for God knows what kind of honey at the Hyatt Hotel in the middle of the afternoon on a workday. Did she even work, for crying out loud!

And here she was now. Looking cool and delectable in a soft silk blouse and drawstring cotton slacks. Sensuous beyond any earthly entitlement. And she obviously intended to leave her, Kris, alone. To face Ellen. And to try to conceal the fact that she was shaking with desire.

Ellen smiled apologetically at Kris. "I’m sorry. The hospital has been messaging her non-stop. She just got off 3 straight days without sleep yesterday afternoon but... well, you know ... what with the whole ...situation ... this has been a tough week for virologists. And this one just won’t stop pushing herself. Even when she’s bone tired." The loving criticism, directed at the departing Janice, was something the woman was obviously familiar with. She stopped at the sofa behind Ellen and laid a hand on her shoulder. Ellen reached up to clasp the hand. A look of complete understanding passed between them.

Kris’s red-hot anger erupted into green jealousy. I should be there.

It was time to go. Kris knew her control was close to breaking. It would serve no purpose, except shame and humiliation, for her to stay any longer. She only had one more thing to do, then she could escape. She quickly rummaged in her knapsack for the gift her mother had entrusted to her.

"From Mom."

A curious stillness came over Ellen as she accepted the package. Janice’s grip on her shoulder tightened.

"Please thank Cass for this. Tell her it means a lot to me."

"You haven’t even opened it."

"I don’t need to." Touched by the gift, it would seem, Ellen was uncharacteristically teary. Amazingly, Kris spied tears in Janice’s eyes too. And even more surprising, they were not tears of gratitude or happiness but of pain and apprehension. The wave of tenderness that washed over Kris in response to that pain scared her more than anything that had come before.

Kris got up. "I should be going. Leave you two to get on with things... Don’t want to get in the way...." She was blabbering, she knew. But it was too late for dignity. Simple survival would suffice.

"There’s no hurry, is there? What time’s your flight?" asked Ellen, shooting her partner an annoyed glance. "You mustn’t mind Janice. She’s a workaholic."

"Yes. Don’t leave on my account."

It was the longest two sentences she had spoken since the awkward greeting formalities a lifetime ago. Which wasn’t saying very much. Kris searched her eyes for sarcasm or guilty shame. There was none. Only sincerity. And a flicker of regret. She really couldn’t figure this woman out.

"No. I better be going. Got to pack." She lied. "That sort of thing."

"We’ll see you out then," Ellen got up, motioning to Janice to join in the farewells.

Janice’s phone, which had been beeping throughout this time, rang harshly in the awkward silence.

"Hallo. Yes?" Listening intently. "Oh fuck." She turned to Ellen, "He’s gone into a coma. We need to talk." And then directly at Kris, "You have to stay." It wasn’t a request. It was an order. And Kris recognized something else in the look. She had seen that agony once before. Only the last time, they had both been naked, and she had been weak with come.

She hadn’t been able to refuse her then, either.

 

CHAPTER 8 — Evening’s Fall

Kris sat in the living room and tried not to eavesdrop. The other two women had been in the bedroom for a while now. Every now and then she caught a snippet, when they raised their voices. At one point, she thought Ellen asked, "Is there something else you’re not telling me?" and almost bolted for the door. But forced herself to remain seated, cursing her imagination. And almost ran again when she heard Janice say, "She should never have been here." The remark twisted her insides with rejection, even though she knew the woman could not possibly have known who she was before they saw each other that afternoon. The shock on her face had been genuine. Almost comical, Kris allowed. If I ever care to laugh again.

While she waited, she took the time to look around her. Ellen and Janice lived well. The deceptive simplicity of their home had not been purchased cheaply. And it was clear that every item had been chosen with care. But alongside the expensive pieces were those that equally clearly had been acquired in modest circumstances. It was the same duality she had sensed in Janice. The easy comfort in the plush surroundings of the very up-market Hyatt against the nonchalant indifference to appearances in the club.

Everywhere, there were photographs of the two women together. In contexts formal and social. Vacation shots. Party pix with friends. Some of whom she recognized as having been at the quiet table in the club the previous night. There was also one picture of a teenage Janice standing between two adults whom Kris assumed were her parents. The background suggested zoo. The toothy grin was so unrestrained that Kris wondered what had transpired to create the woman who had touched her with such cruel intent before holding her with such gentleness.

Plunged back into remembrance, Kris almost missed the one small portrait that occupied pride of place on the upright piano and that turned out, on closer inspection, to be her mother. Much younger, the golden hair cropped short. A very serious expression on her face. Looking straight into the camera. It was not a side of Cass, the laughing, openhearted mother, she had ever seen.

Things were complicated.

*****

When the women returned to the living room, Janice was carrying a weathered leather laptop bag, head bowed, rapidly tapping out messages on her phone. Kris’s heart sank. Are you leaving now? After making me stay. For you?

Even as the thoughts entered her mind, she saw Janice jerk up, as if the woman had heard her recriminations. This psychic connection thing is getting ridiculous.

"I’m sorry." She mouthed. The phone beeped again. She made a sound under her breath. Of frustration. Irritation. Is she resenting this parting as much as I? The eyes said yes.

Aloud, she said, "I have to go. Now. Ellen will tell you what’s happening." She paused a while. The next few sentences might have been about now. Or not. "I would not have wanted things to turn out this way. I need you to stay and hear us out."

I am one crazy mushball. She says "I need you" and I melt.

Janice smiled at that.

And then was out the door.

The energy left the room with her. For someone who said very little and stayed so still, her presence was tangible, and its absence eviscerating.

Ellen and Kris looked at each other. By unspoken agreement, they walked silently into the cheery kitchen and topped up their coffees. Back in the living room, Kris took the loveseat vacated by Janice and waited.

"Janice was one of the physicians attending the first 3 cases." Ellen began heavily.

At Kris’s raised eyebrows, she elaborated, "The women who came back from Hong Kong with SARS."

As the implications of this revelation hit her, Kris sagged against the cushion.

"I’m sorry. Maybe we should have told you when you arrived. I know she thinks I should have asked you not to come. But I wanted so much to meet you. And she thought... we both thought.... that the hospital had taken adequate precautions."

Ellen shook her head, trying to take it all in herself. "She is a virologist. They consulted her only after it was clear that the disease was extremely contagious and the hospital had instituted stringent requirements. Her direct contact with the patients was minimal. Most of the time, her work was in a lab. The initial conclusions were that the virus is not air-borne. It only spreads through actual contact with fluid secretions from infected persons. Cough droplets. Maybe sweat. For someone like Janice, the risk was low."

"But?"

"One of her colleagues who had been involved in the cases earlier started showing symptoms a day ago. They isolated him. We just learnt that he went into a coma. The prognosis is very poor. They now think that the contagion may be more virulent than expected. Or that it stays active in tiny water droplets much longer. Meaning that it might be transported through air-conditioning vents or on contaminated surfaces that have not been thoroughly disinfected. Some pre-schoolers have come down with symptoms. The Mnistry of Education is about to announce the closure of all schools. They’ll send children home until we get a better handle of the problem. The fear is that it has spread into the general population. Healthcare workers are particularly at risk, of course."

"Jesus. Is she feeling .... alright?"

"Janice?" Ellen smiled slightly. "Strong as an ox. A skinny ox. But strong." The humor cut through the fear a little. Kris wondered if Ellen also felt the strange affinity — both of them caring, in her case inexplicably, for this driven woman.

"It’s just that this latest news raises so many questions they don’t have answers to. And the clock keeps running against them."

Kris wanted to comfort Ellen, sitting there so obviously worried but putting such a brave front on things. But there were other considerations that loomed between them, considerations that might never allow her to reach out to this new friend.

Kris waited. There must be something more.

"Janice thinks ... " Ellen rubbed her eyes tiredly. "She thinks you should postpone your departure."

"What?"

"They know that the incubation period is ten days. After that, if you don’t develop symptoms, chances are you’re safe or immune or just plain lucky. The government is already considering forcing a 10-day quarantine on anyone who might directly or indirectly have come into contact with a patient."

"10 days?"

"There’s also the worry that we might be exporting the disease. The responsible thing to do is to try to contain it within our borders if we can."

"10 days??"

"That’s what she thinks. Or at least a few more days until she can sort out whether this latest case indicates a real defect in their analysis of the virus’ effect or was due to human error."

Kris forced herself to calm down. The logic was undeniable. It would be foolhardy to leave if she was a possible source of contagion. And some small part of her leapt in excitement at the thought that she would see Janice again. Might be with her. It was such a stupid, unrealistic, selfish response. Kris felt like slapping herself.

"You probably think she’s over-reacting," Ellen agreed, mistaking the reason for Kris’s grim silence, "after all, we barely spent any time together this afternoon. But, with all the uncertainty.... She just thinks it would be safer....."

The memory of her tongue forcing its way into Janice’s mouth came to Kris. The sagging defeat in her lover’s voice as she had walked away. "I’m sorry, too."

"She’s right." Kris acknowledged, hoping the guilt did not show. "It’s the correct thing to do. I’ll push back my flight a couple of days. I wasn’t due to leave till the weekend anyway, initially. ... Shit!" as another thought struck her, "I’m all checked out. I better start making arrangements if I’m going to stay on."

Ellen halted her. "There’s one more thing."

"Yes?"

"Janice would prefer that you stay here."

"Here?!"

"We don’t know if it would be prudent for you to be at the Hyatt. It’s a public place with a high concentration of local and tourist traffic. If you are contagious, which is highly unlikely of course, that’s the last kind of place you should be. We have a guest room at the back. It makes sense." Ellen paused uncertainly, not sure how Kris would take this advice.

It was all wrong, wrong, wrong! With everything else that was happening, she shouldn’t be hoping to catch a glimpse of Janice. Perhaps in the early morning? Sleep-dazed, soft and wanting.

"I really don’t think that’s such a good idea. I can be careful at the Hyatt. What if I keep to my room? And ask for one on a less occupied floor?" Even as she threw out the options, she knew she would lose. There were too many imponderables. Already, although Ellen had no way of knowing this, there were other people involved. She’d hugged Jo goodnight in the cab the previous night, moist with sweat and after-sex. What on earth was she going to tell her?

The setting sun cut a swathe of vermillion across the coffee table. For a few minutes, the entire room was bright with urgency. Then the grey of dusk started to seep in. There really wasn’t much time. She had to decide.

"Alright." She conceded. "I’ll stay."

"Good." Ellen got up, all matter-of-fact action, now that the decision had been made. "I imagine you’re going to want to use the phone," indicating the handset near the piano.

"No point incurring costs on that mobile of yours. I know how those telcos charge you an arm and a leg by routing your calls via some server in India just to get back to Singapore! I represent some of them," she twinkled. "There’s also a line in the guest room, if you prefer some privacy. We’re not quite five-star luxury but I’ll see if we have some dinner mints to put on your pillow with the evening turn-down service."

"Ellen?"

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

"Whatever for? We’re the ones that got you into this mess. The least we can do is make you comfortable." She gave Kris an indefinable look. It might have been understanding. Or empathy. Then bustled out of the room.

Kris soon heard her humming to herself as she shuttled bed linen, towels and toiletries to what Kris assumed was the guest room. The tune sounded like Love is in the Air. But that would have been weirder than even this nightmare permitted.

 

CHAPTER 9 — Dinnertime

By eight, there were only two more calls to make and Kris wasn’t looking forward to either of them.

The Hyatt had been curious but accommodating.

"Certainly, Ms. Bretton. We shall send a car over immediately with your bags. Just buzz the doorbell and leave them on the doorstep?" A pause. Then smoothly. "Certainly. Without delay."

Kris wondered if she was being paranoid. Better safe than sorry. Now that was a motto she should have listened to earlier.

The airline had been just as efficient.

"Your booking this evening has been cancelled. There’s a confirmed seat for next week and a standby this Saturday. You can pick up the tickets at the airport on the day of the flight. Will there be anything else?"

How about redemption?

"No. That will be all for now. Thank you very much."

"Our pleasure, Ms. Bretton."

Kris put the phone down and stared at the last two items on her list. Jo first. Cass when Eastern Standard Time hit nine in the morning. At least I’ve got a plan.

Jo took a while answering. "Hallo? That you, Kris? Last lap, mate. Almost finished." She opened without ceremony. Kris heard a slap. "Bloody mozzies! Dispatched that one to hell. But at least the stadium’s almost deserted at this time of night." Jo’s breathing slowed as she came to a gradual halt. "So? You done? Mysterious personal errands finished? Dinner? Indian? Shireen might join us later and see you off at the Airport too."

"Er, Jo?"

"Yup?" Shouting to someone else, "Join you in a second." Back to Kris, "Sorry about that. Someone I just met here at the track." When Kris was silent, "Don’t worry. I shan’t bring her to dinner. At least not to yours!"

Kris sighed. Here goes nothing.

"Jo. I’m not leaving tonight after all."

That stopped her.

"Is something wrong?"

You could say that.

Kris quickly explained the situation. She’d met up with an old friend of her mother’s whose partner happened to be involved in the fight against SARS.

"Are you saying what I think you’re saying?"

"I can’t leave the country for the next few days. In fact, I don’t think I can leave this house."

"And exactly where is this house that this couple is imprisoning you? Are you sure this isn’t typical Singaporean risk aversion? You know some of them wouldn’t say boo to a mouse if it crawled up their crack!" Jo cackled at her own joke.

Kris hurriedly read out the address to forestall further laughter. She was really too frazzled to deal with Jo’s distinctive brand of humor right then.

There was a sudden meaningful silence at the other end of the phone.

"Ellen and Janice are your old family friends??"

"Ellen’s the old family friend. Janice is...." Kris stopped. "You know them?"

"Everyone knows everyone here, Kris." There was another pregnant pause. "Did you talk to them about the production?"

What a funny question.

"No. Of course not. I know better than to blow your subject’s cover before Shireen gets the go ahead."

"Hmmm." Jo mused. After a while, "what does the doc say about all this?" she asked.

The doc? Oh, she meant Janice.

"You guys are close?"

"You know how it is. We mix in the same circles. It’s a very small island. And an even smaller community."

"Huh."

"So? What’s doc’s take on this? You can’t go far wrong listening to that one. She’s about as thoughtful as they come."

"What does thinking have to do with this?"

"She’s the one who insisted I postpone my flight and stay here to minimize any risk of spreading this thing around."

"Then that’s that." Jo concluded, the contemplative tone still in her voice. "Look on the bright side. Maybe we can actually close this deal while you’re here, if Shireen gets back to me soon. I suppose we could come visit you and sit in the verandah while you talk to us through the sliding glass doors." Jo joked.

"Ah. Well, that’s the other problem."

"There’s more?"

Kris checked the sounds coming from the kitchen where Ellen was busy putting together a quick meal.

Making sure she was out of earshot, Kris continued, in a hushed voice, "Janice was at the club last night." She felt like she was engaged in some illicit activity. Damn it. She was engaged in some illicit activity.

"Yah. I saw her. And we exchanged a couple of SMSs. Don’t tell me this thing travels through phone lines."

"I ... erm... spent some time with her. Right before we left."

The pause went from pregnant to labor and delivery.

"Does Ellen know?" Jo asked flatly.

Kris cringed from the disapproval in her friend’s voice.

"No."

"Christ, this is a right mess."

"I know." Kris was so dejected she wanted to cry.

"And because you and I shared a cab back together...."

"Yes. I am so sorry."

"Do we need to worry about the cab driver?"

"Oh God. I hope not. He was in the front. It was a very short ride." Kris’s voice broke. She didn’t think she had ever botched anything up so badly.

Jo heard the catch. "Hey. We’re unlikely to be able to trace him even if we tried. We’ll just have to hope it all turns out. Okay?"

"OK." Kris sniffed, hating this unraveled stranger she seemed to have become lately.

"And, erm, leave Shireen to me... I mean.... I’ll let her know. You just take care of yourself, right?"

"Right."

"Kris?"

"Huh?"

"Do you need me to come over? Are both of them there? . ... I imagine it’s gotta be awkward as an Indian playing cricket for Pakistan. "

"That’s the understatement of the year!" Kris burst out in slightly hysterical laughter. She wiped the tears from her eyes. "I’ll be fine. It’s just me and Ellen. Janice..." It was such a relief talking about her to someone who knew. "....is back at the hospital."

"’Right. Well. Call me if there’s anything I can do, huh?"

"Count on it."

Kris could hear the crackle of Jo’s phone as she walked into some building and the reception grew faint. Jo’s final words were forlorn, but reassuringly Jo-like. "So much for a little shag in the shower after a sweaty run. Bugger."

Then the phone went dead in Kris’s hands.

******

The call to Cass had to wait till after dinner, a simple salad and omelet that Ellen had whipped up. Halfway through the meal, which was mostly quiet but not uncompanionable, Kris’s luggage arrived. Ellen eyes crinkled with laughter when she realized that the couriers had been instructed to flee the scene immediately after depositing their load.

"The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." She recited. Which Kris took to be Ellen’s way of saying "Silly you."

Despite everything, Kris found herself relaxing and enjoying the company of her mother’s friend. Ellen was warm and direct, with a little bone of wry sarcasm that she displayed to good effect at strategic moments. The conversation was peppered with literary allusions. "Mother taught English literature," she offered at one point. "Accounts for the lurid poetry-writing phase during adolescence."

The goat cheese and mushroom omelet was delicious and unthreatening. "Don’t tell me. Cass suggested you eat raw chili peppers while you were here, didn’t she?"

And when dinner was done, Kris washed while Ellen dried, falling into a rhythm so natural it reminded Kris of childhood and Cass.

So it shamed Kris when, after having retrieved the luggage on the doorstep, Ellen finally showed her down the narrow corridor to her room and, passing two doors side by side before her destination, she was churlish enough to wonder whether they still slept together. And small enough to wish they didn’t.

The guest room was plain but comfortable. The queen-sized bed faced the window. Ellen had switched on the desk lamp by the small writing table earlier and it cast a cozy glow across the room.

"There’s a bathroom just down the corridor. I’m sorry it’s not connected to the room. But Jan and I hardly ever use it so you can claim exclusive rights while you’re here. I’ll help you set up your laptop in the morning so you can log into the wireless network." When Kris looked surprised at that, Ellen grinned, "She doesn’t know an RJ connector from firewire. I’m the techno-geek in the family. Don’t let the gray hairs fool you."

"How long...?" have you been together? How long has she touched you? How long have you savored what I would give anything to taste just once?

"How long have you and Janice lived here?"

"I got the place soon after I returned from New York. 30 and homeless." Cass never told me about that either. "By then, everyone else in my cohort was a junior partner and had 2 properties, one to live in, one to rent out and wait for the property boom to make them millionaires. I was such a child." She stopped a little. Remembering. "Janice ... moved in a few years later."

Kris’s head ached trying to do the math. They’ve been together forever.

"You need anything, call. We’re just a door away." We. It hurt.

Kris suddenly felt very alone and too tired to face the task still to come. She did need something. Could she really ask?

Ellen stopped at the door, hearing the unspoken plea. She came back and put her hands on Kris’s upper arms, looking deep into her eyes. She gave Kris a quick squeeze.

"You’d like me to talk to her for you?"

Kris let out the breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. "Please?"

"You only have to ask. Anytime."

It was as if a huge weight, one of many, had been lifted from her.

"Thank you. Again."

"What’s family for?" Ellen asked, quite seriously, before walking out the door. Kris heard her in the living room making the international call. If anyone could handle Cass, Ellen could. Maybe. Kris decided she’d had enough eavesdropping for the day and closed the door. But not before she heard Ellen warmly greet her mother. Blade. That was a funny nickname for Cass.

She plonked on the bed, almost squishing the After Eights mint on the pillow.

It was a sin that torment could feel so right.

 

CHAPTER 10 — Deep Night

Kris couldn’t sleep.

The brisk shower had refreshed and relaxed her. After a very long call, Ellen had returned to report that Cass was anxious, but not getting on the first flight to Singapore to rescue her daughter. Ellen seemed re-energized too. Talking to Cass could be a high voltage thing. They’d chatted a little more while Ellen insisted on getting Kris’s laptop set up right then and there. At eleven, Ellen had triumphantly displayed Kris’ company’s familiar VPN log-in screen. "You’re all set," she’d said heartily. Adding "Janice messaged to say she’ll be starting home in half an hour," making Kris wonder if she really ought to read more into Ellen’s statements.

So now, near midnight, Kris was lying in the slightly squeaky bed, trying without any success to sleep. The hum of the air conditioner, alternating between compression and fan cycles, jolted her whenever it cranked subtly into compression. She could hear bullfrogs in the drains and, she swore, something that sounded like a woodpecker in a near-by tree. Kris acknowledged that she’d been living on a noisy city block too long. What sick person prefers the raucous cacophony of traffic to this peace?

It was so quiet she sensed the car even before it got anywhere near the driveway. The turn of the key in the front door was deafening. She could tell that Janice hesitated in the living room, trying to decide whether to turn the lights on. She left them off. The chink of glass from the kitchen. The crick of a lighter. The same waft of tobacco and cloves she had tasted on her lips the previous night. The light footsteps started down the corridor, past the first two rooms. And stopped outside her door. For a long time. Then the door shifted in slightly. Just a fraction. The way it would if someone placed a hand or a forehead against it. The cigarette smoke snaked under the door into the room.

Kris forgot to breathe.

The moment passed. The pressure on the door eased. The steps were about to head away.

Kris lost control.

When she jerked the door open, Janice was still in the corridor, the red glow of the cigarette tip and the slash of moonlight on her face the only light by which Kris could drink the sight of her in.

She wasn’t the only one slaking her thirst.

They stood there staring at each other greedily. Parched.

Janice gestured, almost helplessly. "We need to put this out," she whispered, and Kris might have thought she just meant the cigarette except for the way her eyes were fixed on Kris’s breasts.

Kris took the two steps between them then. She removed the cigarette from her lover’s unresisting hand and miraculously, in the dark, found an ashtray in the living room where she stubbed it out. When she turned back, Janice had not moved at all. She leaned against the wall outside Kris’s room, on the brink of entry. But not yet in.

Kris came up behind her and held her shoulders. Trembling. She’s trembling. There was so little fight left in her.

Kris waited. Very much aware that Ellen slept, unsuspecting, nearby.

Finally, Janice seemed to make a decision. She twisted weakly out of Kris’s grasp, away from the open doorway. Kris almost groaned in frustration. And then Janice brushed against her nipples in the haste to escape, and there was no way Kris could hold back the groan that started in her cunt and screamed through her body till it felt like every part of her was weeping.

She pulled Janice. Roughly. Into her room. Into her arms.

"Don’t make me stay just to want you and never have you." When will it stop being like this? When will I stop begging?

"Oh God," Janice cried, cratering, collapsing.

And now Kris could see that it wasn’t just desire that made her lover breathe raggedly and sag into her. It was exhaustion. Deep, numbing, despairing tiredness. Under the sheer silk, Janice was shaking, the thin frame truly brittle for the first time since they had met.

"You need to rest." Kris said, drawing back at tremendous cost. She set Janice gently down on the bed. And then put as much distance between them as she could. Her head spun. Her teeth ached with the strain of denying herself. She looked out the window and tried to hear the woodpecker again. Anything but the throb of her want.

Just when she wondered if Janice had fallen asleep. "We shouldn’t do this. It’s not safe. It’s not right." The voice was firm again. "I shouldn’t be this close to you."

Kris didn’t turn.

"Why?"

"You know why."

"No. I mean. Why yesterday? Or whenever it was that you took me. I don’t even know anymore. You’ve taken the meaning from time."

She could hear Janice sigh. She’s debating how to come up with some convenient lie.

"I won’t pretend. I used you last night."

How is it possible for me to hurt more than I already do?

"You used me too."

"I didn’t know. I thought..."

"You thought I was some inconsequential playmate you could toy with. So? Are we even?"

"No."

Janice sighed again.

"Why, Janice?"

"She died at noon. The third index case. The hospital didn’t announce it till later in the day but she was dead by noon. Nothing we tried worked. It didn’t even slow the bastard down. Peter was standing right next to me when we got the news. The next moment he was on the floor and they were wheeling him into the ICU. My only thought was that I might be next. He was gasping like a fish on the floor. And all I could think of was my own skin." Her voice was bitter, inviting Kris’s disgust, steeled against it.

"I didn’t know."

"They let the rest of us off for the afternoon. I was frightened and angry. I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing that stain here. I didn’t know where else to go. Where I could be alone. And anonymous. Where I could fuck myself to feel alive. Now are you satisfied?"

Kris’s breath caught in her throat.

"And in the night? Was that just getting back at me?"

"In part."

"What else?"

"Let it go."

"Not till you help me understand."

"I can’t."

"You won’t. I’m begging. And you won’t."

"Ah sweetheart, I can’t." The endearment so whispered she almost let it float into nothing before she could claim it.

Kris turned then. Janice had already opened the door and stepped beyond her reach.

"Last night, I watched someone else hold you and felt rage. Last night, you came after me and, against every good sense, I had to have you. How can I help you understand something I don’t myself?"

Into the empty room, finally, when it could do Kris no good at all, because her want had become unbearable, came the tap, tap, tap of the woodpecker.

 

CHAPTER 11 — Waiting, Now...

The next few days passed quicker than Kris could have expected and slower than she’d hoped.

That first morning, waking disoriented to the sound of birds (birds), Kris found the smell of coffee waiting. Ellen was already up and about, dispensing advice as effectively from the living room sofa as from her office, occasionally refueling from the large pot of coffee on the kitchen counter.

"Help yourself," she nodded and turned back to the phone. "Carol. Tell Chacko to send a copy of the draft bill around as soon as it’s read. They’re so jumpy they’re liable to ask for the power to shoot anyone who coughs. We need to think about the longer-term impact of these proposals and get some comments in, even if we know they’re unlikely to listen."

The headlines felt like deja vu. The Ministry of Education had indeed closed the schools down, and Parliament was meeting in an emergency session to pass compulsory quarantine laws in a single seating, an unprecedented move. Singaporeans were urged to avoid crowded public places and to stay home if possible. Pharmacies were doing a brisk trade in face masks and malls were deserted. There was no mention of Janice’s colleague in the papers.

"They’ll want to be very sure what happened before they go public on that one. They’ve learnt that Jan’s colleague was secretly dating a nurse who had been assigned to one of the wards where the first three women were. She is Malay. A Muslim. She came down with a mild form of SARS quite early on but did not name Peter as someone who might have been in contact with her, for fear of family disapproval She’s now recovering, and they’ll be talking to her to confirm the possible chain of contagion. If she confirms their guess, then Peter’s case was not an anomaly." Ellen said.

"Is he better too?"

Ellen shook her head. "They’re expecting the worst."

"And ...."

"Jan’s team? They’re taking extra measures. She wouldn’t have come home last night if she hadn’t thought there was a better than even chance that the explanation would hold."

Kris looked at the front page, which listed the mounting number of confirmed and suspected cases.

Ellen shrugged at her lifted eyebrow, "I know. It’s not exactly full disclosure but they’re caught between a rock and a hard place right now. Either way, no one’s going to be fully satisfied with their decisions. I don’t envy them."

Kris nodded, acknowledging the dilemma. The trite arguments for and against governmental transparency were easy to make but so hard to apply in an emergency like this, when information was changing every second and the implications of disclosure unclear. She herself had become a practitioner of deceit and half-truths these past few days.

She sat there, next to the woman she had been prepared just hours ago to betray, knowing that she continued to betray her, every moment, in her heart.

Janice had apparently been up before dawn and out the house, leaving only the hint of cloves behind. Ellen caught Kris’s surreptitious look at the ashtray. "Doctors are the worst, aren’t they? She tells everyone to quit, sensibly. And she’s never been able to give them up herself."

"They have an interesting aroma," Kris commented, ignoring the accusing voice inside.

"They’re kretek. Indonesian clove cigarettes. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, the bits of clove mixed in with the tobacco catch fire, and spark."

You’re telling me.

"Just little ones." Ellen assured.

I wouldn’t be so sure.....

Ellen considered Kris somewhat curiously. "She said she’d try to make it back for dinner tonight, provided the all-clear is still valid."

Kris’s heart lurched. "Oh."

"Grateful for small mercies, huh?" Ellen smiled, a little ruefully. And turned back to the sheaf of papers on her lap.

*****

Left to her own devices, Kris returned to her room. She couldn’t stop herself from peeping, voyeur-like, into the two open rooms. Both obviously well-lived-in. She guessed that the one with the untidy piles of books on the floor was Ellen’s. But she had no confidence anymore that her assumptions would stand up to scrutiny. So many of them had been confounded in the last 48 hours.

They have separate bedrooms, her traitorous, hopeful heart murmured. But her mind, slowly returning to service, she was glad to see, banked the emotions down. Let it go, Janice had said. Let it go.

There were 104 unread emails in her inbox, two attaching new concepts for her urgent review. She settled down to work. It was better than dwelling on longing.

*****

The idea came to her in the afternoon. Jo said she liked it too, when Kris called to propose it, although her mind didn’t seem to be entirely on their conversation.

"Since I’m stuck here for a little while, how about we develop a piece on how Singapore is dealing with SARS?"

"Great fucking minds... I was just thinking the same thing. By the way, I’m going stir crazy stuck here, you shit. Jenny was very amused when I called in this morning with the news that I would be working from home for a couple of days. She called me a scaredy-cat, the piker." Jo was strangely out of breath.

"Are you on the treadmill??"

"Nope. Grounded. .. umph."

"Who do you think we should get working on it? Can Shireen’s outfit handle this?"

"Shireen? Ahh... Sure. I can ask her."

"There’d be no real hurry. I’m looking for a reflective piece, something that comes from the distance of time and perspective. We’re not competing with the news networks on this one."

"I’ll ask her and get back to you."

Kris could hear a noise in the background and something that sounded suspiciously like a yelp from Jo.

"Jo!?"

"Yes?" Again, that breathlessness.

"You don’t have someone there with you, do you?"

"Well...." the embarrassed silence told its own story.

"Are you out of your mind? The whole point of this voluntary quarantine is to get you out of circulation. Couldn’t you keep your brain out of your pants just this once?"

"It’s not what you’re thinking."

"You have no idea what I’m thinking," Kris fumed.

"You’re a fine one to talk."

That shut Kris up for a while.

"Look. It’s not as if I went out there spreading my love around last night...." There was a bump at that. "Ouch."

"Oh?"

Kris heard some muffled whispering and then a loud sigh.

"I guess you would have found out sooner or later. It’s ... erm... Shireen."

How could I have missed that? "Ohhhh." Your own brains were in your pants, idiot.

"We’ve been seeing each other for a few months now."

"Josephine Blackburn! All that talk...."

"Ancient history. Or at least, archived. Not current affairs." There was another strangled yelp. "Look. About the SARS documentary, I’m pretty sure Shireen will say yes."

"I bet you are." Kris remarked drily.

"We’ll ... er... (yelp) ... work up a proposal, plug in some numbers ...."

"You do that."

"Tell you what. I’llcallyoubackinhalfanhour..."

The handset didn’t quite find its way securely to the cradle, but Kris decided to be charitable and to hit the hang-up button on her own phone before she intruded any further.

******

Jo was as good as her word and called back about 20 minutes later.

"That was quick."

"Fuck off."

"You’re the one that called."

"True. And I bring creative suggestions for your consideration, master."

"Go ahead," Kris absently scrolled down her inbox. Cindy had sent her a video clip from the CNN website that hysterically suggested that Singaporeans were dropping like flies.

"Shireen thinks we should focus on one or two really strong human stories."

"Yup. Makes sense."

"She has her team sussing some prospects out. Singaporeans from all walks of life. We can follow them through the next few weeks. Show how this affects them in different ways. She also thinks it would be good to get input from some non-Singaporeans. She thinks you would make a good profile."

Kris clicked her laptop shut.

"Me?"

"Yes, you. You came here on business, expecting to spend a week nailing down deals, before moving right along. Through a bizarre coincidence, you come into intimate contact...."

"Knock it off, Jo."

"... you come into contact with someone on the frontlines of the fight against SARS. You can’t leave. You don’t know if you might have been infected. You’re apprehensive, you’re pissed off, you’re banging the good doctor."

"Jo!"

"Oh come on. It’s a good story, even without the sex, and you know it. Admit it."

"No."

"No? Just like that?"

"Yes, just like that. I don’t do front-of-camera."

"Be a sport now."

"I’m serious. I’m not comfortable being the story, Jo. And that’s that. "

"You admit it’s a good idea."

"Yes," Kris sighed. "It’s a good idea. And your very capable Shireen should be able to find someone else with a similar experience to profile. Like half the businessmen in the Hyatt coffee house."

"You’re sure you won’t reconsider?"

"Nope."

"You know what your problem is, Bretton?"

"I’m sure you’re about to tell me."

"You like sitting on the sidelines and observing other people’s lives. You’ll use their nakedness but you won’t show any flesh of your own. That’s what we call a peeping tom where I come from." The affection in Jo’s voice took the sting out of the words. "It’s time you started believing that your own story’s worth living and telling."

There was a short silence. Is it true? Have I never really lived in my own life? Well, if so, the last few days have certainly been a break from routine.

"Real deep, Jo."

"It’s Shireen. She’s got me reading up on yoga even, would you believe?"

"You are so busted."

"As if you’re not," Jo chuckled. "Oh. By the way. The other project? The subject said yes. Shireen just has to tie up a few loose ends and then we can get you a detailed storyboard. Are you done reading the book? Tell me earlier rather than later if you have any ideas for angles. No rest for the wicked, as my mum used to say. Ta!"

It only struck Kris later, after she had sent off several more emails and retrieved the folder from her knapsack to resume reading, that Jo hadn’t really given her grief about Janice after all.

 

CHAPTER 12 — Arriving, Then....

I don’t want this to be about sex. But there is no way I can be honest without talking about the sex.

Without the sex, we can pretend that these are friendships or arrangements for economic convenience. Two withered spinsters sharing a home together because they never got married, Or two former schoolmates staying over at each other’s homes every night, long after graduation, unable to move out because of the societal assumption that filial children lived with their families till they left to set up legitimate families of their own.

In a culture where we don’t talk of these things, it is remarkably easy for the blind eye to be turned. Because we are too polite to confront, we content ourselves with gossiping behind backs. The more inquisitive (or clueless) auntie at the check-out counter will ask, "Are you two sisters?" when our shopping cart contains only one box of toothpaste but two brands of brush. She vaguely senses the connection but attributes it to family resemblance, calling on a standard category for assistance. She probably doesn’t even know a noun or adjective to use for what we have. And we prefer not to enlighten her. Older family members nod approvingly when she gives us a lift to the annual family dinner, then drives off, uninvited. "Such a good friend you have."

It is paradoxically easier for the gay and lesbian community to stay invisible and get on with our comfortable second-class lives here, than in societies where our flimsy disguises would have been made from the word go. We buy our day-to-day happiness with the currency of longer-term full recognition. How can we possibly continue this way and not disappear for good, eventually?

I know that there are many in the community who point to the gradual, creeping trickle of acceptance. They are not wrong. I too remember the time when the bi-monthly party was a weekly rendezvous in a dance-club. When only the eight (or 12, if you were lucky) women who knew of the clandestine assignation would turn up at the designated area near the serving bar and pretend they fit in with the other clubbers. I remember how grateful I was to find out I was not alone — eight others, oh joy! The growth of social gatherings, email lists, and gay-themed entertainment in the last decade must seem like progress compared to those times. It would. To someone who has come to believe that she deserves nothing.

This utter failure of self-acceptance permits the studious avoidance of glaring omissions, like the continued existence and application of sodomy laws, the unapologetic statements of our political leaders that such laws will not be repealed because they reflect the (correct, moral, right) norms of our Asian cultures, and the open (accepted) discrimination we would face in most work-places if we declared ourselves.

Kay seemed to allow no such fences around her entitlements.

She talked of sex openly. She had been with men and women. Not promiscuously, but without embarrassment. Some of her younger experiments had been accompanied by the use of narcotic substances. Acts that would be punishable with internment here. Or, if one was unlucky enough to be caught with specified quantities that raised irrebuttable assumptions of trafficking, possibly the death sentence. It was mind-blowing to someone with my sheltered story-book pretense of life.

She’d laughed at my bemusement and hero-worship. "Oh Boo." (we had our nicknames for each other). "I’m not suggesting you run right out and shoot up, darling. I’m not even proud of the fact that we did a little pot now and then. If I had those times to relive, I think I would prefer my senses unclouded and clear-eyed. But I’m not ashamed either. There’s a thinner line between tobacco or alcohol and prohibited drugs than your government might admit. But the line’s thicker than we sometimes fool ourselves too. The only distinction is that I refuse to let commercial interests decide where the line should be drawn for me. Some might argue it’s a distinction without a difference, but at least it’s mine."

It still seemed mind-blowing to me.

She brought sex up in the second week. "You do know where this is heading, don’t you?" I blushed crimson and moved the uneaten pieces of steak around my plate. All evening, there had been a building throb of anticipation. She had invited me to dinner at a very nice restaurant, one I could not have afforded on my meager associate’s pay but which posed no problems for Kay, her salary calculated in the strong US currency and, again to my unworldly perceptions, including an astronomical "local adjustment" to compensate her for what was viewed as a "hardship posting" in an undeveloped country. In hindsight I know that this, like so many other assumptions I made during that heady period, was vastly exaggerated.

Work had been an emotional strain. It was the day after my outburst at the tycoon and everyone was avoiding me, careful not to be associated with my leprous rebellion. Early in the morning, the partner had given me the dirtiest job in a trial. "Collate all the documents for filing. I want it done by the weekend." It was work you gave a paralegal, or an associate you wanted to punish.

I had been late getting to the restaurant, histaminic from document dust and nursing a headache that only grew as the night progressed. I had no appetite. I couldn’t concentrate on what Kay was saying. My gaze would light upon some insignificant part of her anatomy and minutes would pass before I realized that I had been gaping. Her short, clipped fingernails, lightly tapping to her voice (she seldom kept totally still), had me dumb and drooling for hours. Or so it seemed. And all the time, the throb, throb, throb got worse, until I couldn’t tell where it coming from.

I had never even come close to this sort of physical melt-down. It would have been terrifying, if I had any sensation left to devote to analysis.

"You do know where this is heading, don’t you?" she repeated tenderly. "But we don’t have to, if you don’t want to."

Want? What an inadequate, mealy word for the hunger inside me.

"I can’t say where we will be in a month, a year." She was always so careful to be honest, to be fair. "I don’t know where I’ll be. The magazine could post me out tomorrow. I’m not saying I can’t see more for us. I can. But I don’t want you to do anything on the basis of promises I’m not in a position to make."

The hammering only increased.

"Hey," she said. "Look at me."

I did.

There is romantic drivel that we feed ourselves and then there is honest need. All my life till then, I had excused my inaction with the sentimental notion that my feelings for women were too pure and honorable to sully with physical expression. It was the sort of high romance celebrated in intellectual literature. The swain who yearned from afar, never touching love’s object, faithful in self-imposed exile. It had been convenient to couch cowardice in those terms.

Kay wasn’t a coward.

"I want you," she said. "I want your self-effacing humor and your inscrutable Asian punch-lines that I’m still not sure I understand. I want your lyrical sentimentality and your innocent idealism. But I also want to touch you, and give you pleasure, and have you touch me back."

"I can’t finish this." I choked, the fork clanging so loudly as it dropped on the plate that I was sure everyone was looking at us, in that discreet upper-class restaurant where we might have been the only two lovers in the world or a pair among many.

"Leave it, then," she said. "And come with me?"

There was a time I was very shy about how quickly I came that night, unable to bring any sophistication or grace to that first real orgasm. But in this account, though it expose my naiveté, I now know I should be plain.

We walked up the hill to her apartment, the night air thankfully breezy. It cleared some of the headache. Or perhaps it was the adrenaline surging through me. I’m told it can have that effect.

Her rental three-room was bare in parts and furnished by some landlord without any aesthetic appreciation in others. I was so keyed up by then that the streetlamps seemed to cast psychedelic patterns on the walls, and I don’t doubt I would have fallen but for her arm around me. We went straight to her bedroom, my consent long ago ceded. When she first kissed me, the buzzing in my head clamored into feverish hallucination. Through the fog, the crawling, crawling fog, I could see her lay me down, still fully clothed, on the bed. She started to unbutton my cheap work-shirt, the synthetic material slippery with sweat. I remember wondering if she would think my plain cotton underwear, a pair I had owned since university, laughable. Not sexy and sheer. Too childish. Then she moaned as she released the clasp and finally touched the soft skin on the side of my left breast. I arched up, forgetting to make any more excuses for myself, as I came.

She later joked that I was the easiest virgin she ever had. I can truly say, now, that I feel no shame in agreeing to that. Love should never have to.

 

CHAPTER 13 — Time Passing

How does one describe that state of hazy stupor when one is falling in love? When some moments cling and coalesce in your gut (when she’s near, when she’s there) and others just slough unheeded into oblivion.

For three nights, Kris floated.

Janice kept her word, returning each day in time for the evening meal. Something had changed between them. The visceral connection was still there. The desire. The flame that always smoldered underneath the civilized interaction. But Kris found, to her surprise, that there were many other communions. A common love for music. An eye for art. A deep commitment to social justice. A sly, sly humor.

They talked into the night, until Ellen would get sleepy and excuse herself first, leaving them alone. "It’s okay. You two carry on. Don’t let my old bones hold you back." Looking at Janice, "We’ll speak in the morning, dear?" Janice’s nod and loving smile a knife in Kris’s heart.

The first night, Kris watched Ellen’s door close with dread, not knowing if she had the discipline to honor the values she still held dear, suspicious of her own resolve. She kept her gaze from Janice, her breathing so shallow she might faint. Then she felt the gentle clasp on her hands.

"Tell me about it. The documentary that set you off on this brilliant career," Janice smiled, the teasing very welcome in the midst of all the self-reproach. "It will be alright," she continued, answering the thought Kris had not spoken, in that uncanny way of hers. "Tell me. I want to know everything about you."

And it was. Alright. Against every logical prediction.

It was alright, and magical, and torture.

They didn’t kiss, even though Kris could see (so attune now) that Janice wanted her too. Just as desperately. They knew, without speaking, that there were some lines they had to respect, or risk being consumed. But it would have been too much to expect their eyes to refrain from touching. their words to eschew embrace. And the control did slip at times. When Janice would brush a lazy fingertip along her arm and flood her. Or when Kris’s thigh would press accidentally against Janice’s bare legs. And Janice would close her eyes, clench her fists and wait. Holding. Holding. Till the madness passed. For the moment.

Hours after midnight, the candles had burnt into waxy puddles and they were still sitting in the darkness. Kris could sense the change in the rhythm of Janice’s heartbeat. Quickened. Unsteady. All night, they had talked openly of how they felt about many things. Kris learnt that Janice found solace in Bach, "I know. Most people accuse him of being cold and clinical. Too much thinking in those three-part inventions. But when the harmonies sing, I am... elevated... as if on a different plane." She mocked her own sentimentality with a hand gesture that came so close to Kris’s cheek that Kris could have simply leaned into it and been lost.

And yet they had not really spoken. They had not talked of the present, nor of what the present meant for Janice’s past with Ellen. They really must have an open relationship, Kris thought. How else could Janice sit there, the thin grasp on longing always threatening to surrender, without seeming to feel any guilt? Shyness, yes. Caution, yes. But not guilt.

Kris felt she had no standing to ask. And Janice, the quiet reserve maddeningly in place, did not volunteer.

So Kris sat, reining her own heartbeat in, responding to Janice in that mindless way she now accepted as inevitable. One hand pressed against the spreading damp in her shorts, trying to contain herself, knowing she should walk away.

"Gosh. Look at the time. It’s been fun but I guess I should turn in." She pretended to yawn, keeping her tone light, accenting "fun", breaking the shared rhythm. "I don’t know how you do this. Have you slept at all since we met?"

She felt Janice flinch and withdraw. The response held irony, "Actually sleep, you mean?" she asked. "Not much."

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve lain awake wanting you too. But I’m so afraid of what that means.

Kris got up.

"I think I’ll stay here just a little longer. Unwind a bit." The invisible sheath which had held Janice’s exhaustion at bay all evening had disintegrated in an instant. She was slumped now, the eyelids fluttering imperceptibly, the hands that lit the cigarette unsteady.

Kris only turned when she heard the faint cough, quickly silenced. The plume of smoke was silver in the faint moonlight, but Janice’s face looked grey.

******

The second night, Jo and Shireen came to dinner too, Jo bursting into the room wearing a surgical mask and making silly. Probably to hide her embarrassment from having her backside pinched, very deliberately, by the merciless Shireen, who seemed to be having a lot less trouble with the fact that their cover had been blown than her fair-haired partner.

"You don’t mind if we have Jo and Shireen over, do you?" Ellen had asked at five, looking incongruously domestic with an apron on and her handsfree earpiece clipped to her collar so that she should still take phone-calls while cooking.

"Do you need any help with that?" Kris stuttered, unsure how to deal with Ellen’s easy knowledge, worried what other information she might be hiding behind the open gaze.

"Of course not. It’s been years since I’ve had the luxury of cooking dinner three nights in a row. I’m having a blast. You go read your scripts."

Over chicken stew and rice, Jo told some good Janice stories.

"What about the time the doc screwed up on directions and ended up in an outlying housing estate instead of the pub where we were supposed to meet?"

Janice threw her hands up in surrender while Kris, beside her, resisted the urge to cup the small, perfect breast outlined under the tattered old t-shirt. "Guilty. Everyone knows I’m directionally challenged."

"When we tracked her down hours later, she was at the neighborhood community centre and had agreed to give free clinical consultations for the old folks in the area...."

"She’s a sucker for hard luck cases." Ellen butted in.

"... for the next 3 years!" Jo concluded.

Everyone laughed and Kris made the mistake of slapping Janice on the back affectionately. And had to bite her tongue till it bled when the shock of that simple touch pierced through her groin and almost sent her into orgasm. Janice had a sudden coughing fit and the others teased Kris about her violent behavior. So she had some reason, at least, for the purple blush that stayed on her face and that had nothing to do with the teasing and everything to do with Janice’s hand, camouflaged by table-cloth, taut with warning and understanding, resting on her inner thigh.

She didn’t want to think too deeply about whether Jo and Shireen were really taken in. Nor did she feel up to analyzing the carefully neutral look on Ellen’s face as Jo dredged up yet one more tale to regale them with.

There was another awkward moment when Kris asked Ellen what should have been an uncomplicated question, "Was it tough work all these years running a law firm on your own?"

Everyone went still and, for the first time since that afternoon when it all began, she felt something like anger coming from Janice.

Then Shireen smoothly interjected, "Ah. Ellen’s been modest again." The laughter, from Ellen and Jo but, conspicuously, not Janice, was slightly strained. "This lady is something of a legend in the legal community. She built up, from scratch, one of our most successful firms. At last count, there were 65 lawyers at her beck and call."

"And boy, did she beck and call," Jo winked.

"Not huge by American standards, of course," Shireen continued, "but pretty decent here. "

"This year," Ellen explained, "I ... erm.... decided to take an early retirement and slow the pace down slightly. Pick the kinds of cases I wanted to do and only those. My partners and I agreed that they should buy me out and keep the goodwill in the firm’s name, as well as the more conventional clients. You know, the price-gouging telcos I was telling you about?"

"No one wanted her to leave," Janice said, and it wasn’t clear she meant Ellen’s partners.

"It was for the best." Ellen said firmly. "I’m enjoying the flexibility. Don’t complain just because you secretly hate having to eat the meals I have the time to cook now."

Janice didn’t answer, which was just as well because Kris didn’t think she could have borne it if she’d given voice to the hurt in her eyes.

Later, Kris excused herself and, in the bathroom, almost died of embarrassment and longing when she saw the dark stain of her desire on her underwear. She was so messed up. The constant tug between uncontrolled hunger and even less controllable tenderness was tearing her up inside.

When she returned, the others were clearing the dishes. Jo was deep in conversation with Ellen in the kitchen. Janice and Shireen were setting the living room coffee table for tea and dessert. They both started, looking a little guilty when Kris walked in. From the kitchen, Kris thought she heard Jo ask, "How much have you told her?", before Ellen put a cautioning hand on her forearm.

"Ice-cream or cheesecake?" Shireen asked. And the little gathering returned to safer ground.

******

The third night, Friday, Ellen was yawning by ten.

Dinner had started late because Janice had been held up at work. When she’d returned, long after the food was cold from waiting, the now familiar silk shirt was more crumpled than usual, the frown on the forehead more deep-etched, taking longer to ease. Still, Kris could see that other intent, never far away, take shape in her eyes, as she gave Kris a piercing look, making hurried apologies on her way to her room, "Go ahead. You shouldn’t have waited. I’ll just freshen up and be right out."

Kris wanted to throw her down on the floor and rip the clothes from her, drawing the bow undone on the soft, flowing pants, pulling them off.

She helped Ellen reheat the spicy lamb curry in the microwave instead.

"Jo is setting up a meeting with my subject next week." Kris informed Ellen and Janice later. With the official go-ahead from Shireen, the topic of Kris’s business in Singapore had been taken off the embargo list and Jo had briefly filled Ellen and Janice in at dinner the previous evening. Kris could tell that Ellen and Janice probably knew who the subject was but they had diplomatically refrained from asking more than Jo was prepared to tell.

Janice started, "Oh!" She looked Kris, then at Ellen for support. "I’m not sure that’s safe."

"Don’t worry. We’ll wait till the ten days is officially up. No unnecessary risks."

"Oh. So you won’t be leaving tomorrow?"

"Cancelled the booking. It’d be silly to make another trip later when I can stay on and take care of everything this time around." Was that relief?

"I guess."

No, no. It’s not just the work I’m staying for. Don’t you know that by now?

Janice smiled, "Aren’t you worried your mom will bring a posse to get you if we keep you here much longer?"

"I’m counting on Auntie Ellen to head her off at the pass," Kris quipped, disproportionately gladdened by Janice’s low, sensuous chuckle.

"Auntie Ellen is too tired tonight. Wake me up for hero-duty tomorrow." Ellen stretched, giving the dining table one last wipe and turning off the kitchen lights. "Don’t let her stay up too late," she told Kris, "Unlike me, she doesn’t realize we can’t all be super-heroes." Don’t worry. I’ll look after her. I love her too.

Janice was on the love seat, lighting up the familiar clove cigarette. They had not bothered with the candles this time. The dark was more intimate. Ellen was right. In just the last three days, Janice had lost more weight off the already slender frame. The leftover golden tan didn’t hide the translucence of the gossamer skin beneath her jaw, where the pulse of determination and courage and, yes, desire, beat with seemingly superhuman control. Kris felt a twinge of culpability, knowing that she had added to the burdens under which Janice labored, buoyed, it seemed, only by sheer will.

"How many have you had today?"

"Too many," Janice admitted, "Yes. I am a terrible fraud. But I think everyone already knows that."

"You are a fraud. In more ways than one. I’ve seen through you." Kris’s temerity surprised even herself.

The light in the master bathroom clicked off. The sound of Ellen’s bed creaking interrupted the silence momentarily. Then quietness resumed.

Finally, Janice took up her challenge, "What do you mean?"

"Doctors aren’t really that bad with Maths, are they? Especially simple arithmetic."

Kris sensed rather than saw the smile spread over Janice’s face.

"Ah. Now you get it. How on earth do you keep those project budgets balanced?"

"Microsoft has some redeeming features. Excel is the only one I can think of right now."

They laughed companionably. It was nice to share some less-complicated moments. When the warm comfort of friendship wasn’t relegated to the edge of heated craving.

"So when does the period really end?"

"Tonight."

"Tonight?" Kris squeaked. Her pulse suddenly forgot the benefits of friendly comfort and started racing at breakneck speed.

"Tonight." Janice repeated, the smile still twinkling in her tone.

"Why didn’t you say so earlier?"

"I was hoping it might be like this."

"This?"

"Yes. Just the two of us. Alone." The way Janice said "alone", her voice dropping to a groan, low and promising, sobered and stoked them both simultaneously.

"My only contact with the women was ten days ago, a little after they were first admitted, before the media frenzy caught on. By the time Peter first showed symptoms, which is when the disease is contagious, the hospital was already on red alert and we were scrupulous about observing precautions. Assuming I get through what’s left of today without mishap, I’m probably out of danger and you were never in any."

Well, that depends on what you mean by danger.

"From SARS, at least," Janice qualified, stubbing out the cigarette and disappearing into the shadows.

Kris let that sink in for a while, wondering what was going through Janice’s mind. It’s not fair. She can read every crazy thought of mine and I never know where I stand with her.

Something about the night made her reckless. She knew that this latest news resolved nothing of the treacherous personal issues that still stood in their way. But she had to trust herself sometime. And everything she had seen about Janice told her that, whatever truth might emerge, this fine principled woman would not stoop to petty betrayal. She could not. Who am I to judge what enters into a relationship? I spend my life thinking that I have chosen how I wish to love, but maybe I fell into those choices as easily as the next person. Perhaps, when those choices have such immediate and tangible consequences, two people can commit to an honest love that does not admit to any easy model, borrowing from no one.

As for herself, maybe it really was time she stepped into her own skin fully.

She gave in to reckless honesty.

"Do we wait till midnight, then?" she asked boldly.

"That ... might.... not.... quite.... work." Janice said slowly.

Kris wanted to scream. Then when? When?

She was so wrapped up in her frustration that she didn’t feel Janice till her lips were on hers.

"I don’t know about you. But I can’t wait till midnight, sweetheart." That endearment again, this time spoken against her mouth, asking for entry.

Kris didn’t resist. Come in. Come in everywhere. I can’t keep any part of myself from you.

"Ah, sweetheart." She heard one more time. Then she let Janice in.

CHAPTER 14 -- Cresting

Kris was afraid Janice might break, she felt so light and insubstantial in her arms when Kris lifted her and placed her on the bed, cursing the creak of springs, loving the little, helpless sounds Janice made whenever they were skin to skin. Then the demanding tongue thrust deep into her mouth again, incredibly strong, brooking no disagreement, scrambling her synapses and she decided that Janice could probably take care of herself. Feeling, the heady madness rush to her brain, she wasn’t so sure she could say the same.

They had chosen Kris’s room by unsaid agreement. Janice had pushed Kris in, almost playful. She closed the door behind them and leaned back against it, taking Kris’s hand and easing it into her shorts. Her mound was smooth and very lightly-haired, the tiny nub hiding within the delicate lips. She guided Kris’s fingers through the viscous fluid that lined them, slickly welcoming. Her eyes went wide with pleasure when Kris’s index finger glided past her opening to the little pucker of muscle behind. It trembled and flexed, then contracted.

"Oh God." she gasped, stilling Kris’s hand a little, then grinned with unrestrained happiness. "The things you do to me."

"No more than you do to me," Kris murmured as the shared memory of the last time they had been together like this, the roles inverted, engulfed them both.

They stood like that for a while, Kris’s hand still cupping her gently, caressing lightly, liking the shiver that played over her face with each stroke.

"Does it bother you?" Janice asked, as always reading Kris’s mind. Her eyes, unfocussed with desire, flicked towards the direction of Ellen’s room.

It kills me.

"Yes," Kris admitted honestly.

"Don’t let it. Please."

"How can I not?"

"I think she already knows. I am not very good at hiding how I feel from her."

Just from me? Kris thought, then saw the emotion in Janice’s eyes and realized that she was being churlish.

"I was going to tell her. There just hasn’t seemed to be time. And ...." running a finger, almost absently, over Kris’s straining nipples, "I wasn’t sure, for a while, what you wanted...."

You. Only you.

"Trust me."

You don’t know how much I want to.

"It will be alright. She.... We ... love each other too much for this to get in the way. Whatever happens."

It should have hurt, but all it felt was right.

"What do you want, Kris?" her name like honey on Janice’s tongue.

And so she stepped in.

"You. Only you."

The dam broke.

They were soft and tender. They were rough and eager.

Janice impatiently pulled her own shirt off, the slender body shining with the sheen of perspiration, the perfect breasts peaked and tight. Kris lifted her, the contact slipping slightly from her hand, still wet with Janice. Their mouth locked together, tasting and sharing, taking and submitting. Kris drew back, straddling Janice’s thighs. "Let me." Janice said, reaching up and raising the t-shirt over Kris’s head. Her tongue flicked and circled. She pressed her own breasts, wet from Kris’s mouth, into Kris’s body, groaning as the touch excited her into frantically rubbing herself her against Kris’s chest. Kris fell back, unable to hold herself up, the tables turned. Janice was on top of her now, moving her body, suspended a hair’s breath above Kris, up and down her, nipple brushing nipple, sweat sliding on sweat.

She felt her shorts being pulled off her, then Janice’s hand on her sex. She spread her legs, more eager than she had ever been, needing no more foreplay, hating every moment’s delay. She lifted her knees, tensing her hips for that sweet entry, wondering why Janice hesitated. "So open." Janice marveled. "For me?" Kris grunted her assent. She had been beyond words for a lifetime. And then the thrusts began, filling her entirely, impaling her heart so that it beat only when Janice allowed, now quick, now slow, till she burst in a tidal wave that beat again and again against her soul.

When she stopped shaking, she realized that Janice had shifted so that she was on Kris’s left thigh, the muscles still sparking uncontrollably from the after-shocks. Janice lowered a breast to Kris’s lips, her urgent movements bathing Kris’s leg with wet. Kris took the nipple in, feeling the movements stop and Janice’s body lift from her in the sudden shock of pleasure. Kris brought one hand between them, seeking Janice’s clit, knowing what she would find. Her other hand teased Janice’s nipple in time with her tongue. Janice’s arms strained with the effort of holding herself up, her body jerking at Kris’s command.

"I can’t ...." Janice moaned, her shoulders starting to collapse.

Kris turned her over then, finding the little nub engorged, no longer hiding. She tried to control their rhythm but her fingers kept slipping in Janice’s arousal, kept being twisted from side to side by Janice’s fevered movements. She licked her way down Janice’s body, slowing her fingers in an effort to prolong the pleasure for her lover. But when her tongue slid past the triangle of hair and tasted the glisten, she lost her head. She heard her own moans join Janice’s as her orgasm started to build again.

Then Janice stilled and lifted off the bed, every muscle hard with concentration. Kris flicked her tongue once more over Janice’s clit, and pushed one hand into her own arousal, waiting for Janice’s spasms to start, ready to join her. The spurt of liquid gushing in her mouth, slightly salty, slightly bitter, was so unexpected and so exciting that her fingers jerked deep into herself at the shock, totally out of control, as they came together.

 

CHAPTER 15 — Falling

"That was amazing. It’s never happened to me before," Janice said shyly, one warm finger tracing a line from below Kris’s breast to her navel. At Kris’s skeptical look, "I don’t mean I’ve never had sex before, idiot. "

"I didn’t think so."

"Just the ...." she blushed a delightful pink.

"You mean the ...."

"Yes. "

"It’s a first for me too. I’d heard that it happens for some women but I’d always thought it was a bit of an urban legend."

"Since you hadn’t come across it in your checkered sexual past." The tone was light but slightly wistful.

"Hey. My past has hardly been checkered." Kris confessed, "I’m afraid you got yourself a lover who doesn’t exactly have a long, or particularly colorful, resume."

"I wouldn’t have been able to guess."

It was Kris’s turn to blush. "I’m not usually like this. I don’t usually let go.... But with you, I’m ....", she searched for the words to explain, ".... cast adrift from every assumption and the only thing I can hang on to is how you make me feel."

"I’m glad," Janice whispered, the finger now close enough that Kris’s clit had started to twitch again.

"There’s really only been one other person for me." Janice admitted quietly, the finger still playing.

The words poured over Kris like an icy bucket of water. How could she have forgotten Ellen? She pulled away from Janice’s hand,

"Don’t you need to get up early in the morning?" she muttered.

Janice’s eyes clouded with hurt.

"What’s wrong?"

"Nothing. I just thought you might be tired. After all this."

Janice looked at her, puzzled, trying to read her. But Kris was ready and had every wall in place.

Even then, Janice came close. "It was over a long time ago, Kris."

How can you say that, when we have just made love here, in the home you share together? And then, angry. Leave her. I don’t know how to share you and still stay alive.

Kris remained silent and Janice gave up after a while, the shutters coming down over her own expression.

"It has been a tiring week."

She slowly retrieved her clothes from the floor where they had fallen. When Janice pulled the t-shirt over her body, rubbing against the still swollen breasts, Kris felt the shot of electricity as if the t-shirt had grazed her own nipples.

"Rest well." Kris said, feeling that she had to make up, somehow, for her behavior but unwilling still, after all that had happened, to expose her entire heart.

"You too." Janice smiled, almost against her will it seemed. "Will we ... talk ...in the morning?"

"Count on it." Kris said with false bravado.

Janice waited. Her hand against the door-jamb shook a little and a tremor ran through her body. The flush was still on her face.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," she said, so lovingly that Kris imagined the kiss on her forehead.

The door closed and Kris squeezed her eyes to shut out the pain.

She felt the thump of Janice’s collapse in her gut before she heard it in the hall-way.

*****

The procedure required that they call a special number and wait for the ambulance which would take Janice to the hospital set aside for suspected SARS cases.

"Why don’t we just drive her there?" Kris shouted, not caring that Ellen was staring at her wild-eyed distress with surprise.

"This is what they’ve worked out to be the safest way, Kris. These ambulances are equipped to minimize the risk of spread. Their staff are trained in what to do. I know you mean well, but this is not the time to do anything foolhardy."

Kris had rushed out into the hall-way immediately after she heard the fall to find Janice in a crumpled heap, lying across the doorway of her own bedroom. She was in a dead faint, her brow slightly feverish.

Beside herself with guilt and fear, she had thumped on Ellen’s door. Together they had carried the unconscious woman to her bed, even though Kris wished, with bitter-sweet longing, that she could have swept her up into her own arms.

Ellen had taken Janice’s temperature and confirmed that she was running a fever close to the crucial 38.5° Centigrade mark.

"I think we better get her to the hospital. It’s probably not SARS but, with her background, it’s not worth taking the chance." Ellen set about making the calls briskly, before returning to Janice’s room and sitting by the bedside, stroking her arm.

Shut out from usefulness, locked in her own anxiety, Kris paced in the living room. The clock said it was 4 a.m., deep in the stillest, most peaceful part of the night. Kris could find no comfort anywhere.

The ambulance arrived at 4.15 pm, the paramedics obviously familiar with the process and efficiently businesslike. They cast curious looks at the three women, perhaps wondering about sleeping arrangements. Although she knew she had no reason to be embarrassed, Kris couldn’t stop herself from cringing at the looks. They made her feel abnormal, wrong. Yes. I love her, she wanted to scream. What’s wrong with that?

Janice had come to and was reassuringly cross at the fuss everyone was making over her. "Nothing wrong with me that a little rest won’t cure," she protested.

"Then you won’t mind their doing some tests on you." Ellen retorted.

"There’s nothing the tests can confirm. There’s no clinical diagnostic. The only thing they can do is monitor my temperature and ask whether I’ve come into contact with anyone with SARS. We know the answer to the question and we can monitor my temperature just as well here."

The paramedics were wheeling Janice through the leaving room. She paled suddenly as a wave of nausea caught her unawares.

"Hush up." Ellen said, and Janice obeyed. Ellen followed the wheelchair.

Kris grabbed her knapsack and started out as well.

The head paramedic, an officious Chinese man, looked at them both with suspicion. Behind him, in the driveway, his colleagues were already about to shut the doors on Janice.

"Only immediate family members allowed," he said. "You cannot come."

‘What do you mean?" Kris demanded. "She needs us."

"New safety rules. Not just for SARS patients. Only immediate family members allowed to visit. Limited to three people."

"But there are only two of us!" Kris fumed.

"The patient can also nominate. But must have proof of relationship."

Kris wanted to burst at the stupidity of these restrictions.

"It’s OK." Ellen said to Kris, her expression understanding. "It can’t be helped. It’s the way things are here. " To the paramedic, she said, "I’m coming. I’m her official guardian."

He stood there unblinking.

"Must have proof of relationship," he repeated.

Ellen snapped testily, "Of course I have proof of relationship." She handed him a document, which he read dubiously.

"OK." He finally said. "Come on, lah. Better hurry."

Then they were both out the door.

It was 4.23 a.m. in the morning.

 

CHAPTER 16 — How Quickly Summer Ends, Then

By 5 a.m., Kris was out of her mind with anxiety.

She couldn’t bring herself to return to her room, where the evidence of her recent love-making with Janice was like a pointed accusation.

She didn’t think Jo (or Shireen) would appreciate a call in the middle of the night, however dire these circumstances were to her.

She wasn’t sure she could start at the beginning and take Cass through the events of the past few days, without breaking down entirely.

She was pretty sure a 6th message within half an hour would elicit exactly the same response from Ellen as the last five — "No news yet. Will msg."

Her knapsack lay on the floor where she had petulantly kicked it. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. How could I ever have hoped for happy endings?

*****

Two months after my life with Kay really began, the government arrested a group of Singaporeans and detained them without trial under our Internal Security Act. It was not the first time that these powers, a holdover from the days when the British had used them against nationalist insurgents, were exercised. But it was perhaps the first time that they had been used against seemingly ordinary citizens whose only offence, even by the government’s own account, was that they were members of disparate groups advocating political change. The official line was that, unknown to their members, these groups were being coordinated and manipulated by subversive elements. The government called it a conspiracy. To this day I have been unable to find a convincing legal argument justifying that label for people who did not actually know that they were being used, if indeed they were.

An account of that time is contained in public records and I shall not revisit the facts. Kay’s coverage of the events is also a matter of public knowledge.

What may not be known, although I maintain that right-thinking persons must surely guess this, is how such events cast their terrible shadow across all our lives. That so few right-thinking persons among us cared to question the justice of those actions was an indictment of our national character. Till today, in other ways and on other issues, that muted-ness continues to deafen.

I was serving out the final few weeks of my employment, with no real prospect of another job in sight. I had moved some of my things into Kay’s apartment and was spending most of my nights with her, much to the disapproval of my parents. In the familiar denial of blind-eye-turning, they did not confront me directly, did not ask where I might be sleeping. But on days when I returned home to replenish my clothing supply or to pick up my mail, I had to endure the silent, grim censure of my father and the loud, oblique hectoring of my mother. "What kind of daughter are you? You treat this house like a hotel."

I did not know how to tell them that I had fallen in love with a wonderful woman, who gave pattern and color to every contradictory thread of my short life. And that I was happier than I had ever been.

Years later, when my mother had already passed away, my father asked after Kay. "She was very brave, during that whole detention thing," he said. "Did things work out for her, after they forced her to leave?" I told him everything then, and, at the end, when we sat together in silence, I finally understood that I had mistaken concern for censure all this time.

We don’t give them enough credit, our parents. We assume, sometimes, that their love for us is as conditional as our own. I regret now that I did not trust my mother with the gift of knowing I had been happy. And am grateful that my father would not let me cheat him through my fearfulness.

But this understanding came much later and was not the only insight to elude me in those days. Instead, when Kay first started covering the detentions, I was thrilled by the idea that my lover was in the thick of things, exhilarated by the conviction that we had the responsibility, if we could, to influence the course of history. I still believe we have that responsibility. I am just no longer quite so foolishly welcoming of it.

The first foreboding came when the government invoked a controversial law that allowed it to restrict the circulation of Kay’s magazine. Other foreign publications were also cut drastically. Typically, the government would wait for a critical article to be published. They would then submit their response. If the publication declined to publish the response or to publish it in its entirety, the government would act. The government reasoned, with perversely irrefutable logic, that if the foreign media really only cared, as they claimed, for free expression, they would surely not censor the government’s response. And if they did, they should not mind suffering financially for their beliefs. When some of the restricted publications waited a decent interval and then pulled out their journalists or stopped carrying critical commentary, the government pounced. "Ah hah. Look at the hypocrites. It’s all about the money after all."

Kay’s magazine had held fast. The editors had been worried, of course, but in late-night call after late-night call, they had assured her of their support. Her writing had garnered praise for its unvarnished, unflinching treatment. It was in their interest to encourage her to continue.

So we rushed in. Fools, where angels should have feared to tread.

She managed to get exclusive interviews with the detainees’ family members, their lawyers. She obtained and published exculpatory documents arguing against their incarceration. Some evenings she would meet with her sources and I would wait, anxiously, for her return. For my protection, she never told me who they were. But I helped to tidy up the boxes of notes and papers that began to fill her room.

A few weekends after her articles first appeared, we started to notice the man. He was always just far enough out of sight that we could never be sure that it was the same one. When I consulted a classmate who worked in the public prosecutor’s office, pretending that I was asking on behalf of someone else, he sounded skeptical.

"It takes at least ten policemen, working in teams, to carry out an effective surveillance operation. Don’t be paranoid, lah."

It might have taken ten men to watch us, but it took only one to drive the wedge of fear between us.

The Saturday following that first sighting, we were running errands at a supermarket. As we left, I placed one arm, without care, around Kay’s waist. Her recoil stung. "Why must you keep touching me in public? Don’t you know they will use any excuse they can find against me?"

We argued when we got home. You are not afflicted by my rose-colored myopia. You would have seen, all along, that she was younger, less experienced and so much more frightened than my adulation allowed her to be. Unreasonably.

I lashed out. "So much for your big talk about not being ashamed." And when she would not respond, niggled and taunted till she was forced to articulate the cruel truth I ought to have known, "Do you really think I’m going to risk everything I have worked for, my professional credibility, because of this affair? For God’s sake, there are bigger things at stake here."

We kissed and made up the following night but the rot had set in. Our love-making became increasingly wordless. Love-taking. Love-aching.

Finally, after a particularly damaging editorial based on information she had uncovered, her magazine warned her that she should expect reprisal anytime. The notice canceling her work permit and requiring her to leave Singapore within 24 hours was served soon after.

And with that, my thoughtless childhood ended forever.

******

In the weeks and months that followed, I was desperate to find a way for us to be reunited. But first I had to pack the things she wanted shipped to her in New York, terminate her lease, close out her bank accounts and return to my parents’ home in defeat.

One humiliating Sunday morning, responding to the nondescript classified ad I had placed, the second-hand store vultures turned up at her apartment to pick over the detritus of our life together. I endured their poking and prodding for an hour. But when the skinny, sneering woman stood in front of her precious bookshelf, the one she had only just ordered, custom-made from Indonesia, and bargained dismissively, "So much, meh? I can buy this for half the price brand new, lor!" I snapped.

I remember screaming at them to get out. I refunded everything they had paid, I could not bear to take their money. I lied to Kay that the garage sale had gone well and sent her a check from my own savings. I paid for the truck to take everything to that old folks’ home near Changi airport. Kay doesn’t know this but there is still a small entry on a plaque in the foyer of the home that bears her name, in acknowledgment of our gift. And on days when I pick Jay up after a session of volunteering there, I always look out for Kay’s bookshelf, bent under the weight of folders and papers, at the back of the administration office.

I discovered a resourcefulness I never knew I possessed. I applied to every law firm in New York, learning very quickly that no one outside Singapore cared about my credentials. I pursued scholarships to universities in the U.S. I even swallowed my pride and asked my parents, one night, if they would finance a year of study abroad. They refused, insisting that I would be better advised to get a job and work for a few more years before thinking about a Masters degree. When my father and I talked about this, years later, I asked if they had known. "We guessed," he admitted, "after you told us where you had been staying during those months. We didn’t want you to throw everything away and run after that girl."

Of course they could not understand that I had nothing to throw away if I lost her.

Finally, I came across a notice for a fellowship with the United Nations. It was targeted at recent law graduates, with the aim of introducing them to the work of the UN. Successful candidates would be assigned to a UN agency, to work on matters as varied as the Law of the Sea Conference or nuclear non-proliferation. The notice invited applications from all over the world, and in a bid to extend the programme beyond Ivy League law schools, indicated that candidates from less-developed countries might be eligible for financial assistance to cover housing and other expenses. I must have talked up a good game in my application. When they invited me for a face-to-face interview, I bought an open ticket with the last of my savings and got on a plane.

It was almost a year since Kay left.

 

CHAPTER 17 — "The Time has Come," the Walrus said

The sound of Ellen’s grumpy 20-year-old Mercedes turning into the driveway roused Kris from her thoughts. She looked at the crumpled file in her hands, unable to tell whether the damp tears dimpling the pages were for Kay and her lover, or for herself.

The big kitchen clock said 10.00 a.m. She had been sitting for hours, first reading the words that she already knew and later just staring at them.

The last chapter of the unfinished work was painfully sparse. Kris knew that the woman made her way to the U.S., clinching the UN fellowship, and, after that, a job with a UN-aid agency based in New York. With that experience under her belt, she had returned to Singapore a few years later and started her own firm. It was clear that the time in New York had greatly influenced the direction of her career. She wrote of the eye-opening exposure to global issues of poverty and injustice, the inspiration she gained from her co-workers and the confidence she developed from operating in a competitive cosmopolitan environment. But Kay was mentioned only once more, in the closing paragraphs of the manuscript.

There are many who have questioned my objectives for embarking on this public confessional. My dearest friends worry that I may expose myself to ridicule and rejection. They contend that I should let my life speak for itself without making an issue of my sexuality. Others, probably with justification, fear the backlash that might be visited on the entire community if, as I do hope, this compels some national attention.

To them and to all of you reading this, I can only say.

Loving Kay taught me that, as long as I remained invisible, I impoverished myself and the store of possible good in this world. Vision is a pre-requisite to action. Being seen is a pre-condition to being able to accomplish that task for which one is made. Whether it be as public as giving voice to alternative viewpoints or as private as making another person happy.

If you do not show yourself, you cannot match your soul to your purpose.

In my own case, after a long journey from wraith to flesh, my soul has matched itself to this purpose. To honesty. To the women here who still feel they have no alternative to invisibility. To honoring Kay.

And there the writing ended. With Kay. As it had begun.

Tucked into the file were a few extra pages and notes that Jo and Shireen had brought to dinner that Thursday. "Hot off the presses." Jo had announced. "Literally. She sent us some pages from a diary that she kept around that time. Very raw and honest."

Kris looked at the thick, strong handwriting. The papers in the sink are burning blood red, spurting reflected flames on the kitchen window. She has her back to me, framed in crimson.....

What happened between the two of you? Why is there nothing more about Kay?

******

Ellen was drawn but smiling.

"She’s on her way back. They insisted that she be ferried in that little bureaucratic ambulance. As if it’s so much more secure than my old clunker. She’s totally pissed off, of course. But I take that as a good sign."

"It’s not SARS?"

"Well...." Ellen sighed. "It’s in the nature of this beast that no one can be 100% sure. There is no clinical diagnosis, not yet. The only thing they can do to detect this virus is through an assessment of the history of patient contact with other SARS patients and through its footprint — the symptoms of fever, the dry cough. Ja had the patient contact but it was indirect and long enough ago not to be a strong indication. Her temperature stayed stable, raised slightly but keeping just below the danger mark. And it has started going down."

Kris knew that Ellen was trying to be as thorough as possible, probably thinking that Kris would want to know all the details. But she was desperate to know one thing, and one thing only. Is she alright?

Ellen finally got to the point. "They think it’s probably exhaustion. Just like she said it was. Dehydration and hypoglycemia. That woman just doesn’t know when to stop. "

Kris was so relieved she started to sob. Ellen wrapped her in a hug.

"Hey..... it’s okay. She’s going to be fine"

"Oh god. I felt so helpless ...."

"I know. I wasn’t much more useful over there. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near the wards, of course. I spent most of the last few hours tussling with administrators over health insurance and drinking some very bad coffee. I felt pretty helpless too."

Held in that comforting grasp, Kris felt her ability to hold in her thoughts and feelings slip away. She tried to grab at it but it was intent on leaving. As if, after all these years of observing others through the filter of a lens, she found the camera turned on her heart, the lens picking up every open sore, every picked-at wound, every barely-healed scab.

"I’m so sorry," she cried, even as some part of her knew that she might be committing herself to revelations whose impact she could barely guess at. The skin that had always protected her innermost being had been stretched, scratched and slowly but surely torn away since she met Janice.

"I’m so sorry," she repeated.

Ellen drew back to look at her.

"There was nothing you could have done, even if you’d been there."

"I don’t mean about that."

"Ah." Ellen said.

"Then what exactly are you sorry about?" a cool but affectionate voice asked from the open door.

"What on earth are you doing standing up?" Ellen immediately reacted, rushing to hold Janice and bring her to the sofa.

"I told that rude little man to leave me alone. He was going to wheel me to my bed and tuck me in. I felt I’d endured enough humiliation for the week. There are still some advantages to being a doctor, and I intend to exercise them. Now, sweetheart, what exactly are you sorry about?" Janice looked directly at Kris.

Kris was floored. She looked at Janice, wan but feisty on the sofa. And then at Ellen, who seemed totally unfazed by what Janice had just said and was motioning to Kris to help her bring Janice into her bedroom.

"You two can work this out later. After I get this girl into her bed, where she is under strict orders not to get up for any reason whatsoever."

"Aw, Mom." Janice returned, obviously settling into a routine exchange.

"Stop it. You know how I feel about having my age rubbed in."

Janice’s arm over Kris’s shoulder was still alarmingly febrile and Kris should sense the effort it took her to walk from the living room to her bedroom. But Kris also felt the squeeze and caress on her upper arm and when Janice wasn’t jibing at Ellen, her eyes were steadfastly on Kris, sending some very warm spirals down her spine. It was perverse to be content when so little had been resolved and so many questions remained unanswered, but Kris decided to accept the gift of their bond and focus on how good Janice felt, leaning against her side.

Janice was still in the blouse and slacks that Ellen had taken the time to dress her in to go to the hospital, knowing that she would have wanted to preserve some dignity among her colleagues.

"I’ll go get you some water. Can you get into your sleep things without pulling some silly stunt that’s going to land you right back in hospital?" Ellen teased, telling Kris "There are some old t-shirts and shorts in the second drawer."

"Yes, Mom," Janice said one more time to Ellen’s departing back, earning her a severe finger ticking before Ellen left.

The room suddenly felt very small.

"So? Are you going to help me get out of these clothes?" Janice asked.

"Erm... What about Ellen?"

"She’s not the one I want helping me."

"We need to talk."

"Yes, we do. But first I’d like to stop smelling like a hospital." Janice continued, smiling suggestively.

Are you mad? The walls are about to crash in on me and you’re flirting?

Kris silently opened the drawer. The t-shirts and shorts folded neatly in the dresser were old. A big Mickey Mouse face grinned up at her from a background so faded that the blue was almost white. The soft jersey shorts with the national university logo were sheer and shapeless from repeated laundering. These were the clothes of youth. And their owner had hung on to them long after they were no longer fit for use, the material thin from washing, the hems frayed, the holes peeping underarm or midriff, to keep against her body in comfort when she slept.

"Yes," Janice admitted, noting Kris’s surprise, "I’m afraid I don’t let things go very easily at all. Never have."

Kris handed her the first two pieces she could find, careful to keep her distance while doing so. If Janice felt her caution, she didn’t show it, slowly starting to unbutton her blouse.

Kris turned her back to Janice.

"Hey, you don’t have to look away. I suspect you’ve seen most of what I have to offer."

Kris couldn’t take any more. "What kind of game are you playing?" she burst out, her voice sounding very loud and harsh.

Janice’s hands stopped. "I might ask you the same. But I haven’t."

"I’m not playing."

"And you think I am?"

"What else do you call this?"

"I don’t know... the fucking morning after? When you suddenly won’t look at me, won’t acknowledge what happened between us? When you decide you’ve had enough of your little Asian escapade and get ready to move on to your next lover? How would I know?" She sank into the bed, breathing hard, her anger glistening in her eyes.

Kris moved towards her.

"No," she raised her hand, a cough wracking her body. "Don’t even dream of condescending to me, Kris. Don’t make this about my being ill." The coughing continued while Kris stood helplessly. Finally, the fit passed, and Janice lay against the pillows, the mask of exhaustion back on her face. "Christ. I hate this. I hate that you’re seeing me at my worst, unable to control my body, my response to you. I hate that you’re probably laughing at me."

"Never." Kris whispered.

"I haven’t been in control of anything since we met, Kris. And if it gives you any satisfaction, I don’t think I’m going to be able to regain that control any time soon. If that makes me too weak for you, I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to be." The self-disgust on Janice’s face broke Kris’s heart.

"I’m sorry too. But that’s not an excuse...."

"It’s not?" Janice asked bitterly. "It’s not an excuse that ever since I tasted you on my tongue, I haven’t had the discipline to do anything except want you? I’m aware of the ironies. I’m the doctor here. I should have known better. So yes. I guess it’s not an excuse."

Kris couldn’t understand what Janice was saying. "It’s not an excuse for our hurting Ellen this way. Last night, I thought I could deal with it... but ...."

The shock on Janice’s face was genuine. "Ellen?"

"I don’t know what kind of arrangement you have with her."

"Arrangement?"

"I know it’s late for me to be saying this. I feel like a total heel. I can’t carry on while you cheat on her."

"Cheat?!"

To Kris’s consternation, Janice started to laugh, the shadow miraculously clearing from her face.

"You think Ellen and I are lovers?"

Kris was so ashamed, she could only nod miserably.

Janice suddenly seemed to tap into a reserve store of energy. She got up and walked to the door. She opened it. Ellen was outside holding a glass of water.

"You been here long?" Janice asked.

"I try not to intrude. It’s not Asian," Ellen grinned.

"Kris thinks we’re lovers." Janice announced.

"I’m flattered. That’s the best compliment I’ve received in 20 years." Ellen said, and they both broke into peels of laughter together. Kris started to feel quite miffed as they ignored her, even as the first wave of uncomplicated hope began to well up.

"Kris, honey." Ellen finally said, little spasms of giggles still shaking her stocky frame, inappropriately impish in her delight. "I love Janice more than anyone else in the world. She’s my family. And I will kill anyone who hurts her. But we’re not lovers and we never have been."

"Oh." said Kris, the wave washing over her.

"Kris and I are lovers." Janice announced, for good measure.

"No kidding," Ellen said drily, "Who do you think I was directing my remark about killing anyone who hurts you to?"

"I don’t get it." Kris got up the courage to mutter.

"Obviously," Ellen rejoined, mercilessly. She placed the glass of water on the nightstand, together with some pills and a thermometer. "Will you need anything else?"

"I don’t think so, E."

They held each other for a while. Janice whispered something into Ellen’s left ear. It sounded like, "Mum and Dad would be happy."

"Good," said Ellen, wiping her eyes and pretending it was dust. "I love you, Ja."

"I love you too, E."

Janice watched Ellen leave and then placed one hand on Kris’s cheek. She leaned in, close enough that Kris could see the different shades of black in her eyes, the pupils darker in the center, wide with desire. "Stay?"

"Yes."

Janice made no attempt to disguise her happiness. The wave of hope submerged Kris.

"Now can I get some help with these clothes?"

 

CHAPTER 18 — "To Talk of Many Things...."

"My father was one of the first partners in Ellen’s law firm."

Janice was sitting up against the pillows, relaxed and happy in her Mickey Mouse t-shirt and pale-pink shorts. She looks like a kid. Kris thought, and was reminded of that picture in the living room. A young, radiant, untroubled Janice. She’s so beautiful like this.

Kris sat in the beaten old leather armchair which she had drawn from Janice’s desk to the side of the bed. She held Janice’s hand to her heart and tried not to get too excited whenever it wondered near her breasts.

"Like her, he believed that it was part of a lawyer’s duty to give something back to society but he had never felt free to put his beliefs into action because his partners had insisted that they concentrate on the bottom line. When he met Ellen, soon after she returned from the States, they hit it off immediately, even though he was many years her senior. He left his firm. Together they built her firm up. They made it a point that everyone in the company would devote at least 10% of their time on pro bono work. It was a great partnership that grew into a real friendship."

"Did he know she was gay?"

"Not at first. You have to remember that in those days, there was a real risk that the firm would lose its business, including even the pro bono work, if Ellen was known to be gay. Actually, things haven’t changed so much, in that regard."

Kris squeezed Janice’s hand comfortingly.

"Ellen used to come around to our home and spend time with my parents. My parents had married late. Unusually so, here. They had me in their 40’s. Dad was past 50 by the time I was 10. I was a precocious kid with a bit of an attitude but Ellen never talked down to me. She was genuinely interested in what I was reading at the moment or what music I was into. I probably had a little crush on her, without realizing it."

"Your parents didn’t mind?"

"I doubt they knew. I’m pretty reserved about my feelings, most of the time, you know."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. Anyway, my father was always cool everything. I’ve often wondered if he was really Singaporean!" Janice laughed at the memory. "My mother was a little more conservative. Accepting but slightly cautious. She was a music teacher."

"Ah, the Bach."

"Yes."

"Go on."

"At 14, I fell in love with Mei Shan, a grade 6 piano student who came to our house twice every week for lessons with Mum. I would rush back from school and pretend to be doing my homework at the dining table just to listen to her play. In hindsight, I suspect she was more a plodder than a prodigy. My mother always had to remind her to emote during the Chopin! But I was 14 and besotted, and she could do nothing wrong. I adored her from afar for a whole year, during which she went from the equivalent of high school to being a junior at college. You can imagine my devastation the first time the BMW drove up to the front of the house to pick her up after lessons. He was an investment banker. Very handsome in a boyish Tony Leung sort of way, if you like that kind of look." Janice smiled.

"Leaves me cold."

"Me too." Janice took Kris’s earlobe between her fingers and rubbed it gently. An exquisite tingling began in Kris’s nipples. Amazing. I wouldn’t have guessed they were connected.

"So Donald stole my Mei Shan. And broke my little, naive heart. I can laugh about it now but back then, everything inside me went crazy. I started doing badly in school, acting up. It was the year of my O Levels — an important examination that would determine whether I would get into a good high school. I was falling so far behind that my teachers spoke to my mother."

"Ughs."

"Yes, insult to injury." The fingers had now moved to Kris’s hair, and were stroking her head.

"My mother put two and two together. She must have guessed that there was a reason why I went from never missing one of Mei Shan’s lessons to skulking about in a blue funk in my room whenever she was around. Amazingly, she asked Ellen to talk to me. It was pretty enlightened of her."

"They sound wonderful. Your parents."

"Yes." The hand stopped. "I miss them." Then, shaking off the memories, "Ellen later told me that my mother called her and asked to meet up. She came right out and told Ellen that both she and my Dad had guessed for some time that Ellen was gay, that they had no problems with that. And then she’d asked Ellen to help me through that time. I think she knew that it would come easier from someone like Ellen. It did. For the first time, I was able to put labels on my feelings and understand what I was going through. I had someone I could talk to about the love of my life. She must had been bored stiff." Janice laughed.

"You were young."

"Yes. Incredibly."

"So Mei Shan was that one love in your life?"

"Oh god no. Mei Shan was a youthful infatuation who married her Donald 6 years later and has 3 kids now. Li came later. But that’s another story."

"We have time,"

"We do?" Janice asked somewhat wistfully. And Kris wasn’t sure how to answer her. Because she wanted very much to say yes and to use words like forever. But this fragile new openness might not be strong enough to hold them.

"So," Kris asked, "How come ....?"

"How did I end up here? Living with Ellen?"

"Yes." Kris wondered if she would finally find out where the laughing young Janice had disappeared to.

"Ellen became like another parent to me after that. And she and my parents became closer than ever. When I got into Med School, I don’t know who was prouder, my mum and dad or Ellen." Janice paused. "That year, my parents died."

"Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry."

"It’s alright. It’s a long time ago now. My Dad was on a business trip in Melbourne and Mum had joined him for a short holiday after that. They were driving back from Yarra Valley when a truck swiped them off the road. I was 18, old enough to look after myself but not legally of age here."

"Ellen really is your guardian??"

"Yes, of course," Janice laughed, "Did you think that was a little ruse we’d cooked up to hide our illicit love affair?"

"Something like that," Kris admitted sheepishly.

"What you must have thought of us...."

"I was silly."

"Yes, you were." Janice chided. Kris hung her head, not as much from shame as for the pleasure she knew would come when Janice tenderly lifted her chin to look into her eyes.

Janice continued, "It wasn’t easy. Dad had always been aware that, with both of them so much older than other parents, there was a possibility that something like this might happen. He worried that one or both of them might fall ill. You know. That sort of thing. Unknown to me, he had asked Ellen whether she would be willing to take me in."

"And she’d agreed."

"Are you kidding? She was terrified by the thought. But she also acknowledged that if anyone would respect the choices I made, it would be her. My Dad was an only child too so he had no family to step in. And my Mum’s family. Let’s just say, she was by far the most liberal of 3 sisters. So, when the accident happened, my parents had prepared a will appointing Ellen executrix of their estates and authorizing her to assume legal guardianship of me, unless I preferred to go to my mum’s family. It was a huge mess of course. My aunts were horrified that my crazy parents would even think of my living with a stranger, and a single, unmarried woman at that. It didn’t matter that I clearly wanted to be with Ellen. They forced me to live with my second aunt while they contested the will. It was nasty. They accused Ellen of coercing my parents, of being in it for their money, which was ridiculous of course since, as the top partner in the firm, she was pretty flush herself. And they made all kinds of insinuations about her personal life, but there were never anything concrete they could point to. Ultimately, a few months shy of 20th birthday, the papers were upheld. Ellen became my guardian. By then, I’d grown up, in more ways than one. Ellen gave me the option of getting my own place if I wanted to. But I had lost the rest of my family. She was everything to me."

"So you moved in."

"Yes, I moved in. And, except for the 3 years I spent with Li, this has been home."

"Ah, about Lee...."

"No. Enough story-telling for the day. I’m still a sick woman you know."

Kris was immediately contrite, "I’m so sorry. Do you need to rest?"

Janice gave a mock sigh, but her face was alight with happiness. "I suppose I should. Eventually. After Ellen’s force-fed me with chicken noodle soup or something equally disgustingly healthy."

"God, I can just imagine how obnoxious you must have been at the hospital."

"You don’t know the half of it. I think everyone was so relieved when my temperature started going down because they wouldn’t have to keep me there."

The reminder of their current situation sobered Kris. "Are you sure you’re out of danger?"

Janice considered her words carefully, "As sure as anyone can be, given the circumstances. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s very unlikely, if I have been infected by the virus, that my fever would go down. And I’m not really showing any other symptoms. The cough is slightly worrying but it’s been intermittent and I’m breathing fine. Or least I am, when you’re not touching me."

Kris’s own temperature shot through the roof at the look in her lover’s eyes.

"What I really need is to hold you. "

Kris’s breathing grew labored as Janice ran two fingers down the front of her shirt.

"What I really want is to hear those sounds you make when you want to come."

Kris spluttered a cough when Janice’s fingers reached her stomach and drew circles around her navel.

"What I really desire is to tell you that you can."

Kris caught hold of the marauding digits. "You know I can’t refuse you anything you really need or want or desire."

And then Janice smiled, gloriously unrestrained, and the picture in the living room took life in front of Kris. It was, indeed, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

 

CHAPTER 19 — Down the Rabbit Hole....

The good news came at dinnertime.

Kris had spent most of the day sitting by Janice’s bed as she rested, sometimes sleeping, sometimes awake. Ellen had taken over at one point and Kris had heard them chatting quietly, surmising that the occasional laughter might be directed at her. Late in the afternoon, she had sought out Ellen, who was working the ever-present mobile phone and poring through the never-ending stack of documents.

"She’s asleep." Kris had said. "Her temperature’s gone down a few more notches. It’s close to normal now."

"Good. And you?"

"Chastised but happy."

"Good. I will kill anyone who hurts her."

"So will I."

"She didn’t tell me earlier because she knew I would be angry at her for exposing you to the risk of the disease. I still am."

"I was as much to blame for that."

"I’m sure." Ellen snorted. She squinted at Kris through her reading glasses, "She also didn’t know how Cass might take this."

"Cass has never had a problem with my being gay. I’m sure you know that."

"Yes."

"In fact," Kris had teased, "I imagine she would be happy that I’ve gone and fallen for her good friend’s almost-daughter."

Ellen had hesitated at that. Then she’d turned the tables on Kris, "Have you? Fallen?"

Kris had blushed mutely and Ellen had returned to her papers.

*******

At dinnertime, Janice felt well enough to join the other two in the dining room, although she did warn them that if they continued to look at her as if she was about to keel over any second, she’d march straight back to bed.

The phone call came in the middle of chicken soup — Janice had winked at Kris when Ellen carried the steaming bowls in.

"Peter came out of his coma," Janice told Kris and Ellen after a short conversation during which she had quizzed the caller with a barrage of medical questions. "He’s recovering well."

"Thank God." Ellen breathed.

None of them spoke aloud the prayer they jointly said in their hearts.

May God have mercy on us all.

*******

Kris called Cass after dinner. It was a brief conversation. After the maelstorm of the past 24 hours, there was surprisingly little that Kris felt ready to share with her mother. That Ellen had kept Cass up to date, presumably through email exchanges, on the external situation and the unfolding of SARS-related events in Singapore was evident. That Ellen had not divulged much regarding Kris’s personal circumstances was equally evident. Kris was grateful for Ellen’s discretion, no doubt born out of respect for Kris. The motivation for Kris’s own reticence was harder to dissect. On the one hand, Kris wasn’t too clear herself what the longer term significance of her relationship with Janice might be. Things had happened so quickly and, when she allowed herself to contemplate the future, it was frighteningly amorphous. So, she told herself, there might truly be nothing to tell. On the other hand, Kris knew that very few things in her life had cut quite so deep quite so quick. Yet, precisely because her feelings were unfamiliarly ragged, uncommonly fragile, she discovered that she and Cass lacked the vocabulary to discuss them. Their conversations had seldom been about needs or insecurities — Kris had seemed to have very few and had not demanded to know her mother’s. Theirs, then, was the language of calm and self-possession. It had no words for where Kris was.

So she remained silent. And wondered if she might be mute forever.

******

Jo, in contrast, did not permit mute. She demanded a blow-by-blow account of recent events, threatening to withhold the final budget for the Thai project unless Kris spilled every sexual bean. Kris had to pull rank to get Jo to focus on business.

"You like those numbers? Great. They can start almost immediately. If you re-route your return flight through Bangkok, you can sign the contract personally and tie up the final details. What do you think? 8.00 am flight will get you in before lunchtime. You don’t even have to stay overnight if you don’t want to. Thursday? Friday? Though it would be a shame not to extend over the weekend and sample some Thai desserts. Gastronomical or otherwise."

"Shireen’s obviously not there with you." Kris quipped.

"Weekly family dinner. I’m a free woman tonight. Speaking of which ...." Jo paused, and Kris could hear the tap-tap of typing in the background. "If you’re really free to travel next week, maybe you should plan to swing by Beijing as well. Xueying thinks we can work in a couple of episodes from China into the SARS project. I’ll just drop her a note. There! The wicked shall have no rest, as my mother used to say."

Kris didn’t respond. What she would once have welcomed was now an imposition.

"So? Shall I get Jenny to check the flights first thing Monday? She needs to get used to working for me again. She’s had one week’s bloody mouse-play while I was grounded at home."

"Yup. Go ahead. Doesn’t hurt to check."

But it does. It does.

******

Before she slept, she looked in on Janice, meaning only to say a benediction from the distance of the door. But Janice stirred at the creak of the door hinge, the movement exposing the long bare legs and the top scrunched up past her navel in her sleep. Kris had no choice. She stayed to watch and wonder.

I could look forever.

After some time. "When you’re done looking, maybe you can come sit beside me and tell me what you’re thinking." Amused.

"You always already know what I’m thinking without my having to say anything." Kris protested.

"No I don’t. And even if I did, there’s value in the naming of things, sweetheart."

"How long have you been awake?"

"Not long enough. If I sleep any more today, I’ll grow mould. And that’s a pretty blunt evasion, even for you."

"The fever staying down?" Kris asked, still avoiding the question.

"Yes."

"So it’s almost definitely not SARS?"

"Almost definitely. Sorry for the false alarm." She paused. "The last week has just taken a lot out of me."

My heart.

"Come sit. I can’t see your face with your back against the light. Or is that the idea?"

Kris stayed where she was.

"I better be going."

The pause lengthened.

"Yes, anytime." Janice agreed. "But I meant what I said. There’s a value in the naming. We were together for 5 years. Or so I thought. After 2 years of shuttling between her family home and my place here, I rented an apartment and moved in, waiting for her to join me. Thinking to make a home together. I didn’t call it our home. It was a label I thought we might both come to apply, each at our own pace. But even though half her wardrobe found its way, over the years, into that apartment, home was always her parents’ three-room flat in Braddell Heights. And when I finally asked for what I wanted, naming it clearly, she told me that it had never been within her ability to give. She had never had any intention of making a move that would irrevocably label herself to her family. And that’s when I realized that in all our time together, she had never asked for anything. Silly me. I should have seen the signs, shouldn’t I? I moved back here, still hoping. But gradually, we stopped seeing each other. So, there’s a value in the naming."

"Li?"

"Yes."

"That one person in your life."

"Till now. "

"I may have to leave as early as Tuesday or Wednesday next week."

"Ah. We always knew that was coming."

And so? If I asked you to name this right now. What would you call it?

"Will we talk about your plans?"

"If you want to."

"I do."

"OK." Kris agreed, not sure she really meant to keep this promise. What’s the point? Where can we really go from here?

"Is it goodnight then?" Janice seemed to take Kris’s answer at face value, satisfied with what she’d heard.

"I guess so."

"You do know I would love for you to stay, don’t you?"

"I do?"

"You can be so aggravating." But Janice didn’t seem to be too unhappy with her. "Even with the news about Peter, I suppose we should be safe."

"I suppose."

The expression that flashed across Janice’s face was as simple as certainty, as complex as possibility. Longing, affection. Demand. offer.

"Don’t go too far, then." She smiled. "Sweet dreams, darling."

"Goodnight."

It occurred to Kris as she returned to her room that this had been the least complicated day in a long time.

 

CHAPTER 20 — Running Out

The world descended on Kris with a vengeance the next morning. The number of messages marked urgent in her mailbox was positively disgusting for a Sunday. Evil elves had clearly been at work while she had slept. A deep, dreamless sleep that had fallen upon her as soon as she laid her head on the pillow.

Jenny was patently worth every cent the Singapore office paid her. Overnight, she had compiled a frighteningly complete list of all available flights from Singapore to Bangkok, including all connecting flights from Bangkok to New York via Beijing. The data was depressing. Nothing stood in the way of Kris’s departure. And, judging by the other emails she clicked through, slowly becoming more despondent with each one, many demands awaited in that other life she had almost forgotten. Even Jo conspired against her, reporting that she had secured studio space all day Monday for the Singapore documentary. Kris was left in the bizarre position of hoping, deep in some part of her that she didn’t want to look at too closely, that Janice’s temperature had risen again.

It hadn’t.

"You are not going in this afternoon." Ellen insisted. Janice was mutinous but beautiful, in a grey tank top and faded jeans.

"I won’t even come into contact with anyone if I take the back stairs."

"You’ll come into contact with my dead body if you try anything remotely like that."

"I’m feeling totally fine."

"You can’t be. You’re behaving like a mad woman. Kris. You tell her."

Janice grinned at Kris. She was obviously feeling much better and perversely enjoying the contest of wills with Ellen.

"How long should I hold out before yielding?" Janice asked Kris, the double entendre hardly lost on anyone within range of the heat in her eyes.

"How long do you think you can?" asked Ellen, playing along.

"Against these powers of persuasion?"

"They’re considerable. And you know it." Ellen parried, one eye on Kris.

"But I still like to see you sweat."

"The work can wait, J. It’s not going to fall apart just because you take an extra day."

We have so little time left. Spend it with me?

"Okay." Janice conceded.

"Good." Ellen grabbed her knapsack.

"And where might you be going?"

"Unlike you, I have no excuse for not going into the office. And I have been away from it for almost a whole week. There are some things that you can’t do by remote control."

As Ellen left, with a satisfied look on her face, Kris wondered if the whole scene had been staged for her benefit.

"She knows me far too well," Janice grimaced.

"Oh?"

"She knew I wouldn’t be able to resist if you asked."

"But I didn’t …." Kris started, then stopped. "Yes, it’s true."

"When?"

"Probably Tuesday. If we can wrap everything up here by Monday."

"Two days."

"Yes. Then I’ll be in Bangkok for a couple of days. Beijing. Then home."

"I don’t suppose you’d like company in Bangkok?" Janice watched her quizzically.

Are you playing with me?

Nothing in Janice’s open, questioning expression suggested subterfuge or insincerity. But Kris’s habits of sensible caution refused to let her believe what she saw. Surely it was only wise to apply the filters of skepticism. What if she allowed herself to hope for the unlikely only to learn, when all was done, that Janice wanted no more than an ephemeral dalliance. Kris suspected that she was beyond the point where she could walk away from that sort of pain. Better to curtail her expectations now.

Janice was still waiting.

"Will you be able to get off? It’s short notice." Kris back-peddled. "Anyway, I’ll mostly be working. I doubt we would have much time to spend together."

Janice took a while to think about that.

"That’s sensible," she agreed. "Are you always that way?"

I don’t want to be.

"I suppose it would make more sense to plan a longer trip the next time you’re in this part of the world."

The next time. What does that mean?

And still the chains of caution held Kris back.

"Yes. That would be better."

"You are planning to return?"

"Wherever the projects take me," Kris said lightly.

Janice took another moment to consider Kris intently. She appeared about to say something, then reconsidered it and came to some kind of decision.

"That’s that then." She leaned across the sofa, where they both were sitting, and took Kris’s face in her hands. "I just want you to know that whatever time you are able, or want, to share, I will accept. No obligations. Except those we ask of each other and willingly offer."

She kissed Kris then, the lips soft and undemanding. The kiss invited without imposing. It challenged without competing. Kris waited for the command of Janice’s tongue to sweep into her and lead her where she wanted so much to go. But Janice held back, parting her mouth just a little, the tongue caressing Kris’s lips but never going further. The swirl of desire that had never been far away built into an unbearable coil, but still Janice made no attempt to take control. No fingers strayed to her breasts, even though they ached to be touched. No hands wandered to her thighs, though they spread in anticipation. Kris might have put down Janice’s passivity to defeat. Or challenge. But the quiet calm belied both. Finally, when the wave, ridden to its peak, started to ebb, Kris pulled back.

"You will have to ask sometime. When you know what you want."

"I can’t just wait to be asked? Damsel-in-distress-like?" Kris quipped.

Janice smiled. In some lights, it might have been a sad smile.

"Let’s go to bed." Janice said. And held out her hand in the one invitation that admitted of no complications for the moment.

 

CHAPTER 21 — Closing In

Swept, swept, swept away. Floating in the kind of on-way-out tide that sucks into sand and draws all jetsam further and further away from shore. Kris felt like she had been dragged off from her life’s convenient moorings by the events of the previous week. But she dared not lash herself to the safe harbor that Janice seemed to offer. Instead, she let the force of nature that was Jo drive up in a rented sports utility vehicle Monday morning and squeeze her snugly in the backseat between Jamal and Ken, the two camera-men.

Shireen was in the front passenger seat, expertly applying lipstick with the help of the rearview mirror. Jo drove, holding on to Shireen’s make-up bag in her left hand and occasionally dispensing mascara or an eyebrow pencil. The casual domesticity accused Kris of something but she didn’t want to think what it might be.

"She’ll meet us there. We have the studio all day. Here is the line of questioning. We haven’t really changed anything since the last time you reviewed it. Did you do brekkie already?"

Kris was never more thankful for the inexorability of Jo’s energy. She lay back, safe even from the left, right toss of swift cornering, wedged into position, and let the car speed towards Geylang.

********

The little recording studio on the third floor of an old walk-up smelt stalely of cigarettes and something cooked in lots of garlic and vegetable oil. It was hidden away in a culdesac in a district of nondescript low-rise buildings housing offices for businesses, all of whom interestingly had either Export-Import or Creative in their names.

Kris left Jamal and Ken to set up, Jo and Shireen to finalize the interview questions and walked out to the balcony. Across the alleyway, a black cat stared up at her accusingly. Every encounter seemed to drip guilt lately.

She realised that it was the first time in a while that she had been alone. The first time that she could sit and think without the knowledge that Janice or Ellen was in the next room or the kitchen. The first time that she could sit back and consider the events of the past week without interruption. At least that was the theory. Wasn’t this the mountaintop moment in the movie when, in a swell of violins, everything comes together in stark clarity? Always near the end. Always in time to avert the hero from impending disaster.

Surely it’s only fair that this movie should have that moment. Kris thought to herself somewhat petulently. After all, every other thing that had happened this trip sounded suspiciously like a cliche from some sentimental tear-jerker. Kris’s innate skepticism, which appeared to have been hovering suspended for some time, returned with a vengeamce to chastise her. It wasn’t possible, was it, to fall in love in just a few days? How could she be expected to know whether or not she should disrupt the patterns of an entire life to explore something that had all the hallmarks of fall-off-the-cliff disaster?

It was so different when you didn’t have the power to shut the cameras off, to say cut, and preserve an artificial ending to an artificial slice of experience, to present a neat example of plot and resolution.

And if she had the power? When would she have cried cut, dimmed the lights, inserted the closing credits?

Right at the beginning? The day she arrived? Perhaps just after the sauna in the Hyatt. What would she have had? An anonymous sexual encounter, an interlude. Stretched out and with no dialogue, a French movie perhaps. Shot tight, jerky and gritty, a 5-minute first-time entry into an independent film festival

Or might she have waited? Till the night she and Janice first touched each other with intent and emotion, with meaning? And would she then have been able to lay the violins track without irony? Letting convention imply the happy ever after. Letting genre and imagination fill in the after years. The unspoken rules of love story telling dutifully complied with. The protagonists meet and fall in love. Sometimes quickly, gloriously and smoothly. But, in fairness to authors without illusions, sometimes slowly, torturously and thwartedly. Yet, with only an hour of pictures or a few hundred pages of text, how does one capture the dislocation of being turned inside out? How does one convey the sheer terror of a frantic week of heightened sensation without walking the reader through the day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, page after sentence after word, of predictability that preceded them?

And what does one do, suddenly poised on the brink of decision with no rubric for resolution?

Kris stood with her eyes closed, trying to shut out the mundane mugginess that surrounded her. And strained for the easy epiphany she still had not totally given up on.

But nothing came. Everything was as murky and uncertain and intimidating.

And the only thing she knew for sure was that she missed Janice. She missed the sound of Janice’s voice, the subtle scent of her perfume in the house, the hint of kretek, the linger of sex.

She even missed Ellen.

God. She missed Ellen so much she could hear her voice in the room behind her. Actually, she could hear Ellen’s voice in the room behind her.

Time slowed to a crawl as little bits and pieces of information that had been swimming around in her head clattered, like pennies, into place. She’d been wrong. This wasn’t the mountain-top scene in the movie. This was the scene where nobody turned out to be who they said they were. Which was a close cousin to the scene where the protagonist woke up and found out that she had just lived through the shower dream sequence without realising it. And the dream had ended before she’d had the time to rinse the shampoo out of her hair or put on her clothes.

******

Kris wasn’t the only one feeling sheepish as she headed back into the studios. Ellen wasn’t exactly looking Kris in the eye either, her usually open, warm gaze mildly embarrassed.

"I guess there’s no need for introductions." Jo smugly announced, taking obvious pleasure in her role as rabbit-out-of —the-hat-puller.

Ellen shrugged apologetically. "There never seemed a right time to tell you. I wondered if you might have guessed along the way."

Blind about everything.

"No. I didn’t. Although, in hindsight, there were probably enough clues."

Jo smirked knowingly. "You were distracted. We understand."

Shireen dug Jo a hard one in the ribs.

Ellen looked at Kris. "Is this alright? I don’t have to do this interview if you prefer I don’t."

"Oh come on! You can’t back out now." Jo whined.

Shireen dug Jo another hard one.

"I suppose so. Except for feeling a bit silly for not having seen this coming, there’s no reason I should object, is there?" Kris asked, feeling increasingly out of the loop, out of touch, out of control.

Ellen, Jo and Shireen looked at each other. Jo broke first, dissolving into peals of laughter that earned her several even more vicious jabs from Shireen.

"It’s not funny, honey."

Jo wiped the tears from her eyes. "I know it’s not. But how’s a girl to stop herself? What a cracker of a week."

Ellen had been silent for a little while. Now, she leaned in purposefully and grabbed Kris by the arm.

"We need to talk."

Shireen took the cue and hauled Jo out of the room, managing somehow in the process to also turn off the cameras and lights, and empty two over-flowing ashtrays.

Kris sank into a director’s chair and waited.

Ellen sighed tiredly. "You must be wondering why I didn’t tell you earlier."

"A little. There was time. We’ve been living in each other’s hair for the last few days."

"What can I say? Things were hectic."

"True."

"....and I wasn’t sure...."

"What?"

"Exactly what you knew or didn’t know."

Kris laughed slightly bitterly. "Obviously, practically nothing." A thought struck her. "Janice knows of course."

Ellen nodded. "Of course. All along. We don’t keep very much from each other. She thinks I’m crazy to risk exposing myself to discrimination, and possibly worse."

"She’d rather you didn’t."

"That’s putting it mildly. She almost threw a fit when I first told her I was considering this."

"It is going to be a big mess."

"I know. I am sure all official appointments will be withdrawn and my practice will become very quiet after this airs. It will be an opportunity for me to take a nice long break from work, perhaps."

"And you left your firm?"

"To shield my partners from the consequences. This is a purely personal decision. As few people ought to suffer from it as possible."

"Why?"

"Why do this? Do you need to ask? At some level, the question must surely be — why didn’t I do this sooner? Why has no one done this sooner?"

"You have influence. Your opinion matters. You’ve spoken up on these issues before. Why take this extra step?"

"Because at some point, you can’t carry on this discussion in the abstract. It’s about principle but it’s about so much more. It’s about people. And we can’t talk about people until we give them names and faces, relatives and spouses, lives and histories." Ellen paused for a while, lost in thought. "It’s just the right time. For me. It’s the right time."

Kris looked at what almost seemed to be tears in Ellen’s eyes and a chill ran down her spine. "You’re not ...."

Ellen stared. Then laughed. "Oh God no. I’m not terminally ill or about to kill myself or anything quite as dramatic as that. No. I’m afraid I’m going to have to hang around and actually deal with the consequences of this action. Some of which I hope will be good ones. And others which I’m not so naive as to expect to be nice. Look Kris. You come from a society where this fight has begun. It is still far from being won. But it’s on. Here, we’ve spent years telling ourselves we were gearing up for battle. Taking care of personal things, building networks and community, having a good time. Someone’s got to start taking territory. I reckon this is one small hill I can take with minimal casualties. A little skirmish in the war. It would be rather cowardly not to, don’t you think?"

"You’re very brave."

"Hardly. Perhaps a little tired of marking time."


"You’ve thought about this for a long while, haven’t you?"

"Long enough."

"Did you hold back for Janice?"

Ellen smiled. "You’re a smart one. Janice lucked out this time. And I told her so."

"You did?"

"I did."

"Oh."

"Yes. I wanted to be sure that she would have enough stature and recognition of her own that she could ride the storm."

"People are going to speculate about the two of you when they see this programme."

"Not if they’re busy speculating about Janice and her cute American TV director girlfiend." Ellen teased, the smile turning serious when Kris didn’t immediately reply.

"Janice knows who she is, Kris. She was only ever concerned about my welfare and reputation, when it came to this decision, not her own. She cares very much for you."

Kris still couldn’t bring herself to reply.

"You’re worried that these are huge sacrifices to make and accept for something that might not work out."

"Wouldn’t you?"

Ellen smiled gently. "I have."

In the silence that ensued, more pennies dropped.

"Kay..."

"Yes."

"Wasn’t it difficult?"

"Terrifying."

"And yet you went."

"I had no choice, really. She was what I loved and wanted. And she couldn’t stay."

"But it didn’t ...." Kris stopped, not sure how to continue.

"No, it didn’t work out."

"I’m sorry. That was inconsiderate of me."

"It’s okay. No lawyer would ever fault you for questioning the credibility of the source. Here I am, suggesting it is worth risking your current vision of the future for love. You’re entitled to ask whether I have reasonable grounds to expect it will work."

"Do you? Have reasonable grounds?"

"None whatsoever!" Ellen laughed, crossing the distance between them, kneeling down and taking Kris up in a crushing bear hug. "Absolutely none, my dear." She sat back on her haunches and looked up at Kris. "But I can tell you I never regretted trying and would not have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t. When you meet your match. When your heart, your mind, your soul and, yes, those pesky bodily parts too, tell you that this is the partner you never imagined you’d find. You do what you have to. Without guarantees or assurances. With no commitment more binding than a hope. And that’s the worst advice a lawyer could ever give you but the only advice an old romantic knows how to."

So it wasn’t quite a mountain-top moment. But then this wasn’t quite a standard movie. And it was a very nice hug.

"So. Are we going to film this sucker or what?" Ellen finally asked.

"You bet." Kris replied, sitting up briskly.

"I think Jo and Shireen have been eavesdropping from the kitchenette."

"I’d be worried if they hadn’t." Kris agreed. "By the way...."

"Yes?"

"Why didn’t things work out between you and Kay?"

Ellen paused.

"Hey. It’s fine if you don’t want to tell me."

Ellen paused still.

"After all, it’s really none of anyone’s business."

Ellen paused a bit more. Then said. Very slowly. "Actually. It is yours."

"Sorry?"

"Haven’t you guessed who Kay is?"

"Why? Should I have?" Kris asked stupidly, a treacly fog settling in her head and making thinking very difficult.

"We have this thing sometimes. Janice calls me Ee, for Ellen. We call her Jay for Janice."

"So Kay is someone whose name starts with K??" Kris asked, feeling truly, truly stupid now.

"Well, that would have been a little obvious."

"Oh thank you very much." Kris retorted crossly. "Nothing’s been obvious to me. Obviously!"

"Obviously."

"Just tell me and put me out of my ignorant misery already. It’s not as if I’m about to run and blab to my mother or anything like that!"

Kris stopped short.

"Ohhhh."

The pennies had gotten as loud as a jackpot machine disgorging a huge win. Kris had the feeling that the moment she should have yelled cut had long passed her by.

 

CHAPTER 22 — Moving On

The headlines, although 2 days old, were comforting to Kris as she savoured the ready-peeled pistachios in the delicate porcelain dish in front of her. She could get used to flying business class on Singapore Airlines.

"SARS — One Year On."

"Lessons From A Year of Living Dangerously."

Singaporeans, having come through a fairly harrowing period with characteristic competence, were clearly in the habit of conducting post mortems, making checklists and setting up standard operating procedures for future similar challenges.

Kris herself wasn’t too sure what the autopsy on the last twelve months of her life would reveal. For the moment, she was content to let the grainy pictures, and the Asias names and locations accompany her on this flight back to a place that felt more familiar than a visit one short week a full year ago should have made it.

As they had, many times in the months between, images of Janice invaded her mind as she tried to concentrate on the bland journalistic commentary. Images that always ended with that last frantic coupling the night before she left. When Janice had let go of some invisible tether which Kris would never have guessed existed, loosened the ties completely. And Kris, who had never known nakedness till then, had been entrusted with all of her being. For when the first crest hit, Kris had gathered Janice to her, only to be pierced by the whimpered need that hid behind no pride and simply asked for more. Again and again. Till Kris had no doubt — except of her own resolve. And even when they said goodbye, as the cab waited impatiently in the driveway, it was Kris who drew away from the embrace, reluctantly, regretfully, half-heartedly but Janice who resolutely kissed her and said "You only have to ask, when you know what it is you want" before firmly turning away and closing the door to her bedroom.

There had been many messages and telephone calls since that parting. Nothing had changed. Nothing was the same. Recently, the emails had arrived less often, even though their contents were reassuringly constant. A little bit of news, some ascerbic commentary on events of the day. Always the closing salutation. Yours, J.

Away from the immediacy of physical contact, some of the desire had banked down, but if anything the communications in between, confirming as they did a meeting of intellect, values and emotion, were harder to deny. Still, the logistic improbabilities stood in the way; and in fairness, Janice never once pressed for their resolution, simply making the gestures she was able to and leaving Kris to decide her own path.

In late Fall, Janice had made a quick visit to New York. Kris took some time off. They drove to Provincetown for Women’s Week. Janice had meetings with hospitals in New York, exploring opportunities. Kris studiously avoided placing any significance other than career advancement on those discussions. They fucked whenever they could.

The newspaper sat on Kris’s lap as the Big Top sped towards Asia. The editorial was entitled "SARS — And the Things That Really Matter". Kris closed the paper.

20 hours later, Kris landed in Singapore. Groggy, sweaty and not a little apprehensive. A limousine driver waved a placard with her name. This time there would be no need to wait in cab ranks, even though the driver was no less chatty.

He handed her three envelopes, while making comparative geopolitical statements. "Your president is a war hero. Our next Prime Minister used to be a Brigadier General. Good thing, right? They will understand each other."

Kris opened Jo’s note first. "The woman needs a new gown. The day of the ceremony and she decides the old black one won’t do. Will swing by for a freshen-up drink after performing spousely duties. Don’t finish the bitty fridge bar snog without me."

Shireen’s note was somewhat more informative. "You have the suite for the night. My compliments. Car service to ceremony set for 6.15 pm. Have left your invitation with hotel reception, in case we don’t see you before. Jo finally conceded this morning that bermudas and a Hawaiian shirt do not constitute Formal Wear. Imagine she will spend most of the afternoon rejecting anything I pick out for her, so don’t wait for us. Hope you have the acceptance speech. I’ll bring the tissues for Jo."

The last envelope had Janice’s distinctive strong script on the front — "K".

Kris slipped it, unopened, into her backpack, next to large envelope that bore Ellen’s name, in her mother’s handwriting.

The driver was still ruminating. "International relations always very tricky affairs."

Kris leaned into the back seat and let the humidity claim her.

****************

The suite at the Hyatt was, if possible, many times more elegant than the room she had previously occupied. And the service staff inhumanly polite. Everyone seemed to know that she had flown back to attend the Asian TV Awards and that both her pieces on SARS and on Ellen were contending for prizes in the best documentary category. The first had been warmly endorsed by the powers that be, including the bit where Kris herself went onscreen and talked about her personal experiences in a city under modern plague.

The Ellen piece had been pointedly ignored by local media and authorities but had garnered widespread critical acclaim. Ellen’s life had pretty much taken the turns she had predicted but, as Janice’s notes attested, Ellen seemed to have taken things in her stride and was making the most of the situation. The judgeship had fallen through of course, and corporate business was slow. But she was taking the opportunity to focus full-time on worthy causes. Janice herself seemed to have largely been unaffected by the show, her services as a virilogist being in great demand over the last year.

If one ignored the unresolved persnonal questions that hung in the air, you’d think that life had moved on quite satisfactorily.

The receptionist called out "Good luck tonight" as Krise headed to the lifts. The flower arrangement that greeted her when she entered the room was large, colourful and sturdy enough to hold up a golden banner with an enthusiastic "All the Best!" embroidered on it.

The flowers were so opulent, they almost obscured the in-room jacuzzi discreetly built into a raised portion of the suite. They also almost obscured the red light on the telephone indicating that she had a message. Janice’s voice was clear and very nearby — as it had been clear and deceptively nearby the times they’d spoken long distance. "Welcome back to Singapore, darling. I’m so proud of you. I know Jo has some wild partying planned for you tonight. But call me if you want to meet up after that. Anytime. If not, Ee and I will see you tomorrow for brunch, as planned."

Kris unpacked and sent her suit for pressing, all the while knowing that she was avoiding some issues. On her bed lay the two envelopes. One sealed but not opened, from Janice. The other unsealed, from her mother.

Cass had been clear. "Before you give this to Ellen, read it. We both want you to. You know you want the answers but you can’t bring yourself to ask any questions. There is a limit to where caution and logic can take you. The rest is in the doing, darling."

Kris fingered the folder-sized envelope. The manuscript inside was slim. Just some pages. She knew what they were. "It was such a terrible time for me. I couldn’t say how I felt, to anyone. It was only later that I was able to write down my thoughts. And even then I couldn’t post the letter to her. It’s time she knew it all."

Kris decided to check out the mini-bar instead. Maybe Jo and Shireen would finish dress shopping soon and come rescue her from her fears.

***********************

An hour later, Jo had not turned up and the two envelopes still sat on the bed. The hotel laundry had returned her suit. She had arranged her clothes in the rosewood cabinets, and re-arranged them another four times. Nothing was on TV. And it seemed truly decadent to indulge in a jacuzzi alone.

Kris opened the envelope with Ellen’s name on it. The sheaf of papers was yellowed and crumpled — as if, over the years since they had been written, they had often been taken out, read and then returned to their hiding place. Printed on perforated computer paper in that old-fashioned dot-matrix print which now looked vaguely childish, the words seemed so different from the poised, confident, stylish woman Kris knew only as her mother.

Kris turned back to the first page and started reading.

************

E:

It has been a year. Will it be ten before I can bear for you to read this? And will you even know me then?

I have received your letters. They arrive regularly. One every week. Sometimes two. On weeks when something has excited or saddened or touched you. You don’t have to tell me that. I know. I still know. I still remember how your face would light in happiness, your eyes would sparkle.

I don’t reply. I don’t respond. Even though I answer every letter. So that you too are regularly visited by mail. But I fill mine with inconsequentials. And I do know how that must hurt, how quickly the gleam must leave your eyes when you read them. If only everything then had been that simple — as simple as knowing your every reaction, seeing your every response, hearing your every assent.

But it wasn’t, of course. Although it could have been, perhaps. It wasn’t.

How do I describe the place I had backed myself into that frigid winter morning when you turned up on the doorstep, carrying that ratty blue hand-me-down Samsonite that I had brought to Singapore and left behind in a hurry? Carrying your life in a bag and your heart? Your smile reminding me of failure, your face reminding me of defeat.

You made too much of me, baby. Too much of what you chose to see as strength, conviction, ability. In contrast, you saw yourself as shaken by self-doubt, circumscribed by circumstances. Yet, to me, you were always the braver, clearer one. Perhaps precisely because you had those doubts and had to overcome those circumstances.

When they came for me that afternoon, smelling of old dried sweat and bully, I blustered and protested. But deep inside, I knew. I knew that I would have written anything they demanded, done anything they asked. I was so frightened. Not just of the physical harm they could inflict but the casual ease with which they might destroy everything I had worked for and which I had taken for granted. I would have thrown you away in a heartbeat. I escaped that day, and all the days since, looking like a hero. They think, out here in LA, that I am some kind of journalistic rambo, out-gunning a despotic third world government. And only I know what shaky ground I have been standing on all this time, only I knew how much I would sacrifice, cowardly, to avoid that chasm, only I knew the shame of that self-knowledge.

So, when I fled to New York, the only thing I could think of was creating a safe place for myself. All those months when you prepared yourself to join me, I searched to escape the insecurity, the tenuousness you represented. I didn’t tell you. How could I? I doubt I even knew. Each day without a job, without prospects deepened the fear driving me. When the lifeline came — the offer to come write for the international desk of this small city paper, I didn’t think twice. I didn’t think of you. And from my doorstep, ready to offer me everything, you watched me run away.

I know I broke your heart. I do not know how you have found it in yourself to forgive me and to keep hoping. In your last letter, you talk of how you might be able to swing a posting out West. You see? You are the braver, clearer one.

Andrew has asked me to marry him. I intend to accept.

In the next inconsequential letter, I will tell you this. I will tell it to you by the way, without preamble, without signficance. It will kill all hope, I imagine.

I will not tell you that it has nothing to do with the wild, frightening passion that threw me off kilter and kept me hungry all the time I was with you. Or the fathomless knowing into which I could sink in your arms. I will not tell you that I seem to have lost all ability to risk anything for an outside shot at perfection and that even the shame of that loss is not enough to propel me into trying. I wish I could let go and trust what we have. But the fall is dark and terrifying. And I am tired of despair.

K

**********

The handwritten note tucked into the computer printout pages was much newer.

*********

Ellen:

When you requested permission to break silence, you asked that I return the diary you gave me that morning in New York. The one that set out in raw contemporaneous honesty the events of our last few months together, unfiltered by memory, untempered by contemplation. So that you could faithfully report them to a larger audience.

I sent you the diary in that package through Kris. I included copies of our letters to each other, our notes, our writing. And my blessings.

But I did not include the one letter. And perhaps it is time I did, for full understanding.

Thank you for your unwavering friendship these years. For forgiving me and not letting me run too far away. For demanding whatever I was able to give, even if it must have seemed so much less than what you wished and were prepared to offer in return.

I think you know that I have very few regrets about the life I have re-made. And I have been so proud of the one you carved for yourself. But I do regret my failure of nerve that morning in New York, when you presented us that final chance to see where our journey might have led. One doesn’t compare actual life with what could have been. Better? Worse? Those are impossible words to apply. But I now know that there are the lives that we do not go looking for or seeking out, that seem inappropriate or improbable but that neverthless were intended for us — sliding snug over our bodies and souls, fitting. And then there are the lives we choose and grow into, finding comfort in contours we know we desire and patterns we intendingly put on.

You were my fit.

I have been happier. I have been more contented. I have been safer. But I was never more finely matched. What was I frightened of?

Always,

 

 

But this time, there on the last page was the familiar thick bold signature. "Cass". No longer Kay. No longer needing pseudonymns or codes.

Kris slowly put the letters back in the envelope. She felt a sense of disquiet. But whether it was because of the revelations she had just read, or the echoes those sentiments evoked in her, she could not tell.

Suddenly, the silence surrounding the still unopened letter lying on the bed was noisy with reproach.

What am I frightened of?

Kris reached towards the letter in the midst of a terrible pounding in her head that grew louder and louder as she slid the single A5 sheet out.

What am I frightened of?

Kris stared at the simple paragraph, not taking any of the meaning in.

What am I frightened of? Why won’t the pouding stop?

Suddenly, the pounding stopped and the door burst open. Jo and Shireen stood there looking slightly frantic.

"You almost gave us a fit, silly git. Why didn’t you open the door? We must have been pounding for the last 5 minutes. We thought you’d fallen asleep in the jacuzzi and drowned. Luckily the hotel gave us an extra key when we booked the suite. What’s up? Jet lag got your tongue? We’re here to inspect the mini-bar and make sure you haven’t stolen the toiletries."

Kris slid the sheet in her hand into her pocket.

What am I frightened of?

 

CHAPTER 23 — Arrival

The drinks had vaguely threatening names like vodka tongkat ali. Which was apparently a mix of the old Russian Absolut favorite and a new Asian aphrodisiac extracted from Malaysian tree barks. Kris reverted to lime juice after a gin and tonic. She wasn’t sure it would help ease the nagging arousal she had been drowning in for the last few hours but it might save some sorely needed brain cells.

The after-award celebration party was held at a lovely old colonial bungalow on top of Singapore’s highest hill. The locals called it a mount but that probably accorded the mound a status justified only from the perspective of lowlying islanders. The music was house, the company eclectic (members of the small arts and entertainment industry in the country and their hangers-on) and Kris’s mood impatient. Every now and then, someone would try to make small talk and then recognize her, give her a knowing look and a thump on the back, and say something like "Can’t wait to get home, huh?" or, less optimistically, "Now you’re done for, aren’t you?".

Everyone at the awards ceremony had obviously seen her performance. Actually, much of Asia had probably seen her performance. It was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.

****

Kris had sat in the auditorium next to a very lovely-looking Shireen and a surprisingly spruced-up Jo. Anyone who tells you that they can’t be bothered about awards ceremonies and winning is lying. Kris had been tempted to be bah-humbig about the whole pretentious affair, but after the opening number in which guest acrobats from Beijing demonstrated several moves that Kris would have sworn were humanly impossible, the evening had built from throat-lump moment to throat-lump moment. Kris even found herself clutching the Kleenex during the SARS tribute video when a sombre Prime Minister came on-screen and exhorted everyone that Singapore could get through this test.

So, by the time several starlets had tearfully accepted their acting awards and made their incoherent acceptance speeches, Kris was awash in a haze of emotion. Of course, that had to be exactly when the organizers not only scheduled the awards to be presented for Best Documentary but to give the award to her, for the piece on Ellen. To make things worse, both Shireen and Jo, who accompanied her up to the stage, made pithy, witty, eloquent acceptance speeches that failed to use up the full allocation of time and then pushed her straight into the microphone with 30 seconds to spare. The apotlights blasted in her eyes. She reached desperately into her pocket for the slip of essential acknowledgements, took it out, unfolded it and started reading.

"In a world where the magic of love has been deconstructed, devalued. Reduced to nothing more than hormonal need, dismissed as nothing less than commercial exchange. Nothing truly prepares you for the incandescence of recognition when you find the one whom you were born for, prepared for, fit for. You don’t run away from that, however much you might want to."

Kris blinked. The audience was quiet with anticipation, hanging on to her every word, as she attempted to celebrate the love that her documentary about Ellen had caught so vividly. Or so they thought.

What the hell am I saying?

The handwriting on the slip of paper in her hands was as familiar as her own but it wasn’t.

And how the hell do I stop now and get back to "I want to thank my post-production crew in New York who are probably just about getting up now."?

"I once said that you would have to ask sometime. And don’t think I am letting you off the hook. But, darling, surely you must know by now, and if you don’t, I will tell you again and again. The answer is Yes. The answer is Yes."

"Whatever the question might be. For you, the answer will always be yes. Janice."

Kris was grateful that Jo had the presence of mind to wrap her in a long lanky embrace that pulled her away from the microphone and backstage. The applause, now knowing and slightly cheeky, swelled, chasing Kris out the door into the night air where she stood nauseas with the knowledge slowly dawning that she had just been proposed to in front of millions of watchers all over Asia and that she had probably guaranteed that the wedding was off.

Jo was laughing so hard Shireen had to stuff a delicate silk accessory into her mouth to shut her up.

Kris stared blankly at them both.

Jo spat out through Thai fabric, "Oh you’ve gone and put your big fat foot and paw into it now."

"Jo! Behave yourself." admonished Shireen.

"And you didn’t even have the good sense to say yes back, you idiot." Jo carried on, undeterred by Shireen’s fierce glare.

"Don’t be so worried, Kris. Janice will understand."

Oh God. She watched me too.

Jo took one look at Kris’s face and laughed even harder.

"Oh you didn’t think for a moment that she wouldn’t have her TV turned to this station this programme this night, did you? Girlfriend. Don’t even hope."

Kris’s horrific grimace undid even Shireen.

"Oh dearie. It’s not that bad," Shireen spluttered, wiping her own tears of laughter. "She knows you’ve been under a lot of stress."

Jo had the last word, "At least she writes a better acceptance speech than you. Oh yes, I saw your notes. "I want to thank my post-production crew" indeed!"

But Kris was beyond caring about insults added to injuries.

****

Drinking is underrated, Kris thought to herself as she walked through the deserted hotel lift lobby long past midnight. As the evening had worn on, the lime juice had given way to sexually empowering vodkas. After several of them, she had almost fooled herself into thinking she would be ready for the reckoning she must inevitably face in the morning when she and Janice met again after all these months apart. Unfortunately, sexually empowering substances predictably typically have less longevity than one hopes.. And these had left her sadly sobered by the time she said her goodbyes to Jo, Shireen and a dozen new Singaporean friends who all wanted to touch the garish persplex statuette she still held in her hands.

The suite was made up for the evening, the bedcovers turned down, a complimentary bottle of champagne on the table and the night light dimly casting its glow.

Kris tiredly stripped off her clothes and stepped quickly into the shower.

What am I frightened of? I know the answer to all the questions that count. Every single Why. Every fearful Why Not. Answered by the simplicity of knowing that we were meant to be together. Always.

The daunting questions. Two people from different sides of the world trying to make a life together They were valid. But they were all Hows. And you answer a How by doing.

The hotel shampoo smelt of peach. It drained from her body in foamy white streaks, carrying grimy particles of smoke, sweat and doubt along.

*****

The jacuzzi was humming and the lights played shadows on the water. Fresh from her shower and release, Kris’s feet stilled at the bathroom door. The jets had not been on when she first returned. In the pool, obscured slightly by the still large and flamboyant flower arrangement, a familiar presence sat. In the skimpy hotel bathrobe, Kris knew she should be wary of this unexpected intrusion. But a reassuring sense of affectionate amusement wafted in a scent of kretek across the room. And a lanquid peace settled over her, as she felt, for the first time in a long while that everything might yet work out.

Then she caught a glimpse of golden, slender shoulder and the lanquor turned to desire. Kris felt herself spilling onto her thighs beneath the flimsy robe. She stepped up to the edge of the jacuzzi.

"The answer is yes."

"I know."

"I am asking for everything."

"I know."

"The last of life. For which the first was made."

"I know," Janice said, a third time, stepping out of the water. "So am I."

Then Kris was in her mouth, on her skin, over her body. And every objection, every doubt melted away in the familiar slick of breast on breast, soul on soul.

Sometime later, after Janice had come several times in quick succession, each time groaning Kris’s name like a prayer and a plea, it occurred to Kris that maybe she should note, for the record, what earth-shaking, life-changing significance this meeting and capitulation might bear. But when she cast her eyes over the image of Janice in her arms on the crumpled bedsheets, ran her mind over the rightness of their fit and searched her heart for the clamor of revelation, she could find no tectonic shifts, no huge chasm between the before and after.

Instead, they talked of ordinary things in ordinary ways, while the devastating fingers that Kris had fantasized about while they were apart found ways to devastate her now they were together.

"Shireen gave you a spare key."

"Yes. She did. She thought you might like the surprise."

"I did. I do."

"Ellen has planned brunch at eleven."

"Are we really supposed to be awake at eleven?"

"She says the menu will work equally well for tea.’

"Ah."

"Right there?"

"God yes."

"There’s a possible opening, upstate New York. I could commute. Weekends together."

"Starting when?"

"Realistically. Third quarter. Good for a couple of years."

"OK. Gives me time to plan."

"Plan?"

"My turn next. Fair?"

"Sounds fair."

"I’m told there will be jobs in Asia for talented award-winning film-makers." Kris teased.

"Even if they muck up acceptance speeches?" Janice’s thumb was stroking the tender skin at the crook of Kris’s thigh.

"It’s good television. I should know."

"It doesn’t have to be fair, you know. Life generally isn’t. As long as it’s mutual."

"Yes!" The word came out on a sigh as Janice softly entered her and started sliding in and out. A slight pause now. A demanding thrust then. The other hand on Kris’s right breast and love in her eyes.

"The answer will always be yes." Janice reiterated, leaning into a leisurely kiss that took its time to stay exactly where it was. At home.

And then, Kris finally accepted the gift of her mother’s words.

Love is.

Independant of our acknowledgment or response.

It is the answer to the why.

The rest, the hows, we answer by doing.

 

THE END

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