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."
"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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
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."
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.
"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.
"She knew I wouldn’t be able to resist if you asked."
"But I didn’t …." Kris started, then stopped. "Yes, it’s true."
"Probably Tuesday. If we can wrap everything up here by Monday."
"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."
"....and I wasn’t sure...."
"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 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?"
"Did you hold back for Janice?"
Ellen smiled. "You’re a smart one. Janice lucked out this time. And I told her so."
"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."
Ellen smiled gently. "I have."
In the silence that ensued, more pennies dropped.
"Wasn’t it difficult?"
"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...."
"Why didn’t things work out between you and Kay?"
"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."
"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!"
"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.
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.
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.
The handwritten note tucked into the computer printout pages was much newer.
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?
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 am asking for everything."
"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.’
"There’s a possible opening, upstate New York. I could commute. Weekends together."
"Realistically. Third quarter. Good for a couple of years."
"OK. Gives me time to plan."
"My turn next. 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.
Independant of our acknowledgment or response.
It is the answer to the why.
The rest, the hows, we answer by doing.
Return to the Academy