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 backgound. 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 ny 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 firm, 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Chronicled only in my unpublished record was the destructive pattern of constrained loving that continued throughout my growing up years.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 fledgeling 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 focussed 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 unrepentently 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 neighbouring ASEAN countries. She had taken part in political marches, once at the risk of some personal physical danger. To my naive ears, it sounded glamarous 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 excatly 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 realised 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 bell-hop. 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 unmistakeable 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 forwward 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.


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