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 Singapores 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 Casss 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 youre the over-achieving, always correct, older sister, she acknowledged.
The hotel phone rang. It was Jo.
"Lobby in 5 minutes, you slouch. Cab meters 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 strangers 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 photographers 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 for Jos 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.
Its just the heat. She told herself crossly. And, stepping into the sweaty dusk, almost believed it.
Kris didnt know if it was the jet lag or sexual haze but the evening seemed to pass in a blur. Jo must have been her mothers 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 islands 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 40š 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 Singapores busy port where, further offshore, twinkled the lights from tankers, liners, containers and smaller boats anchored for the evening. Behind them the citys business district loomed, some of its occupants only now leaving their offices to stroll down to the waters side for beer or coffee.
"Theres often a long waiting line at eleven. Thats when the show starts," Jo explained, "so its good to get here a little earlier."
Kriss sluggish senses slowly awoke to the fact that there was indeed a line snaking from a discreet entrance. Singapores 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, theres 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. Its a bizarre seesaw between intolerance and symbiosis."
"Youre plugged in. No pun intended!" Kris qualified when she saw Jos lascivious smile.
"Its a small community. The saliva trail rarely exceeds a couple of degrees of separation. To mix my metaphors."
"Unforgiveably." Kris agreed.
"Ill 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 Kriss hands.
"Come on. Drink up. Then, lets 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 afternoons 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 Dont 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 Kriss 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 strangers 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 wasnt 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 strangers face.
I cant 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 moments 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, were 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.
"Arent you satisfied? What more can you take?" Her voice, llike everything else about her, was unexpected. Low, husky, impeccably accented.
"Im so sorry." Kris blurted out wretchedly.
"Why? Was I not good enough for you?" Cutting. Bitter.
"I didnt mean... I didnt 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 Kriss eyes but Kris felt overpowered. "Or this." A demanding hand pushed between her legs. The contact shot through Kriss 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 lovers 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 t-shift, 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 strangers 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.
Her hands fumbled weakly, wanting to pleasure, but spent and inept. Like the rest of her.
"Shh. Its 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?
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?
"Im 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 hadnt stopped standing on end.
Jo had been subdued when Kris emerged from the toilet, disshevelled and disassembled.
"Its the project. There may be a slight hitch."
"Oh?" asked Kris, thankful for a conversational subject that didnt involve sharp questioning about her prolonged absence. Her body still tingled, like it was alight. She marvelled that no one could see the sparks. "Whats happened?"
"Jay was here." Jo offered, unhelpfully.
"Jay?" her bewilderment was real, even if it wasnt related to anything Jo was saying.
"Dont worry. Well 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 realised how contagious they were. It may get intense. Were all supposed to check our temperatures. First sign is a high fever."
Kris shrugged, wincing at the sudden movement. Maybe thats it? I have SARS? Lord knows, theres no other rational explanation.
Jos 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 didnt 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 mothers 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 wasnt sure what accounted for the slight blush as she gave Jo a decorous peck on the cheek in response to Jos 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 independants often went for months without a live project in the pipeline. It kept them lean and hungry and it wasnt a formula for expansion. A contract with a Discovery or Nat Geo or a company like Kriss 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. Shes 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. Theres some talk that she is being considered for the bench. It would be quite remarkable if she is 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 hasnt exactly advocated a conventional lifestyle, she would be an unusual candidate." Shireen grinned "She also photographs well and is an animated speaker. Shell make a very attractive subject."
"And she wants to come out? Now?" Kris asked.
"Shes never actively projected herself as straight, unlike some other public figures I wont mention. And theres always been talk. But shes also guarded her private space jealously. However, with the judicial appointment possibly in the works, she feels its time to be clear about herself. Its a hugely courageous move, in my view. I know that many of her friends have cautioned her against it."
"She doesnt 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, well need a better sense of your intended treatment and a rough storyboard."
Shireen patted her briefcase. "Its 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."
"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. "Shes definitely a lawyer. Probably has a form for this?"
Shireen smiled. "A very good one actually."
"I heard from Jay last night." Jay again.
Jo nodded. "Theres apparently one important person who is still thinking about this. She wont go ahead unless she gets this final consent."
"She expects it soon. Maybe a week or two?" Shireen nodded at Jos question. "Thereabouts."
Kris felt the letdown "So we cant do much else on this trip?"
Shireen was apologetic. "Im 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 "Its 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. Shes 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. Shes used pseudonyms and glossed over some details so it wont give you a full flavor of the whole story. But its a cracking read even as it is."
"I dont suppose you could arrange for us to meet. I might be able to persuade her."
Shireen shook her head firmly. "Shes a friend. I know it complicates things but I cant in good conscience pressure her into exposing herself before she is really ready. She has a lot to lose here. Im not sure you understand..."
Kris thought about everything she had seen since arriving. She acknowledged the fairness of Shireens position. "A girls got to try..." she conceded wryly.
"Doesnt 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 well stay in touch? Through Jo?"
"Yup. And Ill 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. Jos 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.
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