She sees a group of them, young ones, huddled around a laptop, and knows immediately what it will be. There is something recognizable about them, a sense of like calling to like. Sure enough, as she gets closer, the tinny music grows familiar, the same songs they’ve been playing since her childhood. She should turn, walk the other way, but something draws her further into the café, a studenty joint, not her usual sort of place.
There are six of them, five boys and a girl, all in sloppy T-shirts, dirty jeans and plastic-rimmed glasses. Probably undergraduates, this side of St Mark’s Place is lousy with them. They are gazing fixedly at the MacBook Air on the table, angled for optimal viewing, hooked up to small but powerful speakers.
On the screen, a phalanx of schoolchildren in sunflower yellow are singing tunelessly, their voices kept from straying too far off-piste by a humorless brass band. The Combined Schools Choir, her brain whispers unbidden. It was her job one year to supervise rehearsals, two of her classes having been forcibly volunteered to take part. She remembers the sweaty late-afternoon stillness, waiting for the event to star—how unnatural it was for a large space in the city center to be so silent.
She realizes the undergrads are looking at her. She must have been staring for too long, too closely. Just as she is about to smile apologetically and move on, one of them addresses her. Singaporean, is it?You Singaporean or Malaysian?
Must be Singaporean, says the girl. Must be. Malaysian where got interested?
You want to watch? says another one. Come, never mind, sit with us, the Wi-Fi here damn fast, shiok.
She stares at them, wondering if this is a performance for her benefit, if they have coarsened their grammar and dialed up the Singlish as – what? A claim of authenticity? A provocation? I’m not—she begins, I’m from—But that is enough for her accent to expose her, for them to exchange knowing looks. Confirmation.
Don’t shy, says the first undergrad, a skinny Indian boy. Join us, come, it’s already started. We have keropok.
They are smiling, childishly pleased to encounter a countrywoman so far from home. It makes them feel sophisticated, she imagines, to be in the heart of Manhattan doing something as Singaporean as gathering to watch the parade. She wishes, suddenly, she were the sort of person who’d smile and sit, offer to get a round of coffees, join in the chorus of Stand Up For Singapore.
Fewer than ten years separate her from them, but they seem to exist in a different universe —more sturdily-built, surer of their place in the world. Looking at them stare expectantly, she knows she ought to say something polite, make an excuse. But something chokes her so instead she smiles tightly, unable to speak, and goes, almost tripping over a barstool. Seow, says one of the boys behind her, not unkindly, and she thinks, Yes, probably, I probably am a bit crazy.
The street is full of coffee shops, but she walks past the next few, as if the undergrads might come after her, and goes into one that doesn’t have a Wi-Fi sign in the window. Her latte arrives with a beach ball etched into the foam—Happy summer! beams the barista—and settles by the window. Every café in the city is stuffed with young people sunk in thought nursing overlarge coffees, and no one pays her any attention.
She’d mostly managed to forget what day it was, but now she’s been reminded, it’ll niggle at her. If she were back where she came from, she’d be—what? At a barbecue, maybe, and later a pub or something. Certainly not hunched over a computer watching the ceremony. And whom with? People from work, old classmates—it was not very long ago, but she cannot think of any particular friends, just people who happened to be in her vicinity.
It’s shaping up to be one of those stridently hot August mornings, when moving anywhere seems slightly too effortful. She has nowhere to be, which is not unusual. This is her existence now. There is probably something she can do that will cause her life to make sense again, somewhere she can go or someone she can speak to, but the idea of extricating herself seems so insurmountable she’d rather not think of it. Her visa has expired, and she doesn’t even know if she can leave the country without being arrested. She gets by on cash-in-hand work, more or less, but doesn’t dare do too much of it. Otherwise, nothing. She shouldn’t be drinking expensive coffee. She shouldn’t be doing a lot of things.
More blank hours ahead. There is plenty to do that costs nothing in this city, especially in warm weather. She used to sit and read in the Public Library, but that felt increasingly pointless, like studying for an exam that would never come. Lately she has taken to walking in the streets, just anywhere, but preferably here in town. She hates where she lives, its mean proportions, the dirty grey-brown buildings.
Two women come into the shop with their toddlers, which seems like a good moment to leave. Already the anxious young man behind her has stopped tapping into his laptop and is passive-aggressively not moving his chair quite enough for the strollers to get by. She’d rather not get involved in a turf war between young mothers and freelancers. The street is emptier, the remaining pedestrians moving at a less cut-throat pace. Everyone with an office to go to is there by now.
She walks to the end of the block and onto the first crosswalk to turn green. The day feels vaguely celebratory, though whether from the excess of sunlight or the occasion she cannot say. She passes familiar sights, not so much registering them as enjoying the blur of downtown, the blocky buildings and jostling pavements. The movement calms her. It’s good to walk as far and for as long as she can. If she reaches the right level of tiredness, she will be able to sleep properly tonight, easily, without dreams.
Now and then she hears echoes from earlier, Seow, Come join us, and the music, that song. If she digs her fingernails into her palms they go away. This is ridiculous, the undergrads have probably forgotten her, and she wouldn’t recognize any of them if they met on the subway. But the moment – that is harder to scrub away. An imperfection in the weave that she can’t help running her fingers over, again and again.
I need to go home, she mutters, something she says under her breath when she needs to let words slip out. When she looks up, there is a bank of payphones in front of her. The first one doesn’t work and the second is missing its receiver. The third one has a dial tone – an urban miracle. She taps in her calling card number.
Her father answers, grunting, Yes, yes? When she says nothing, he continues, Yes? What do you want? and then Is it you? It’s you, right? Where are you?
She says, Happy birthday, Singapore, and puts the receiver down. She is not a cruel woman. Her family should know she is still alive, even if that is all she is prepared to tell them. Perhaps someday—but again, that’s one of those thoughts that never ends well.
A man is standing right behind her. She tries to pass him and almost trips over a leash. He nods apologetically at his dog, which is sniffing determinedly at the base of the furthest phone booth. Sorry, he says. This is a very interesting neighborhood for smells. Is your friend called Singapore?
She isn’t sure she’s heard correctly. My friend?
I couldn’t help hearing, on the phone—
Singapore’s a country.
Well, I knew that. He is a little flustered, but clearly wishes to be the sort of man who strikes up easy conversations with complete strangers. It’s a, you know, thing. People running around being called America or India. Or China? I’m sure that’s a wrestler. Maybe spelled with a ‘Y’.
It’s our National Day, she explains. Perhaps she should not be humoring him, but he seems essentially harmless, and she has nothing else to do. Like your Fourth of July. Independence. There’ll be a parade.
I’ve never heard anyone say ‘Happy birthday America.’
She takes a step away and sees the High Line about a block away. Has she walked so far already? The sun is higher now. They’d probably be almost at the end. The final performances. Some kind of gigantic float. More video. Fireworks. And the hosts shoutin—
That’s off limits, he says, as if reading her mind. No dogs on the High Line, for some reason. As if she’d invited him to join her.
The dog is a shih-tzu, mat-haired and slow-moving, probably fairly old. As she reaches to pet it, it leaps for her hand and dribbles a stream of pee down her jeans leg. She looks at the man, appalled, as the animal cheerfully laps at the gap of skin visible where her socks have slipped down.
Sorry, sorry, he gets over-excited, he says, offering her a handkerchief which she makes no move to take. Really, I’m so—I can’t apologize enough. He’s an old dog. I’m sure my bladder won’t be much better when I’m his age. Would you like to come and get clean? We have wet wipes. He gestures at an apartment block close by, which makes sense, the dog doesn’t look like it would be able to walk very far. She looks closely at him. Flannel shirt and too-tight chinos. The uniform of a different tribe, not someone whose natural habitat is the Meatpacking District.
This is, of course, a terrible idea, which is why she follows him to his front door, not offering to help as he struggles to hold the leash and key in the entry code. The interior is musty and in bad need of paint, but a reek of money lingers beneath the stale air. She follows him up to the second floor, keeping her distance from the dog, which leaps from step to step as if each is an individual challenge. She feels she should applaud as it hefts itself onto the landing, panting like a champion.
The apartment is an odd diamond shape, a thin hallway opening into a living room with a kitchen bar squished into a corner, narrowing to a tiny bedroom at the back. A board has been roughly tacked onto the window sill to form a crude desk—although you’d have to balance on the back of the sofa to use it. On it is a stack of flyblown paper, a thesaurus, and a typewriter. Not even an electric one.
She raises an eyebrow at him and he confesses, I’m a writer. The questions rise naturally into her mouth, What have you written that I might have—or Are you published in—but she swallows them again. It is patently obvious he is as much of a fuck-up as she. What are the odds that those boxes under the dining table contain unsold novel manuscripts, scrubby thin-papered journals he was once published in, rejection letters that agents have taken the time to scribble a personal word or two of encouragement on?
Instead she says, keeping her voice neutral, I bet you don’t find many writers in this neighborhood.
I sometimes see Jeffery Deaver getting milk at the C-store. She continues to stare levelly at him until he confesses, It’s my wife’s apartment. I mean, her parents bought it for her. She’s at work. His face suggests the following emotions, in order: reluctance to talk about his wife, realization that this is what he feels, determination to say something more about his wife because, dammit, why shouldn’t he talk about his wife, he has nothing to hide.
I teach. He doesn’t say where, or what, but there is no need, it explains that he does have a real job, and also why he isn’t at it now. He doesn’t ask what she does, which suggests he understands too.
They stand for a moment, before he reaches under the sink and starts handing her objects that might be helpful—kitchen roll, laundry soap, stain remover, a sponge. She dabs at the pee stains, almost invisible now, then runs a wet cloth over them. It’s probably fine, she can’t smell anything and her clothes must pick up much worse from the average subway seat. He looks towards the bedroom and she can tell he is wondering if he should offer her a pair of his wife’s trousers. Fortunately, he decides against it.
It’s a bit early for a parade, he says conversationally.
She takes a second to work out what he means. Time difference. It’s ten at night in Singapore now. Smiling to make him feel less stupid, if he’d forgotten, or so she doesn’t look like she didn’t get the joke, if he were joking.
He reaches down without looking and finds the dog’s ears. It must only have one resting position, on the sofa with its head against the middle scatter cushion. There is a moment when she could go, but it passes and he offers her a drink.
Pressing the icy coke can against her forehead before opening it, she says, Can I smoke? and he replies, Sure, on the balcony. She waits a second and adds, Do you have a cigarette I could steal? He meets her eyes and reaches behind a pile of magazines for a packet she’s willing to bet the wife doesn’t know about. American Spirit.
The balcony is really a fire escape, and can only be reached by clambering over the bed. He goes first, to show how it’s done, and she hands him her drink through the window before following. The space outside is tiny, a metal grille with ladders above and below. He opens his own can—diet, she notices—and raises it in a toast. Happy birthday, Singapore. She salutes him in return. It’ll be over by now. Everyone’s queuing to leave the car park. The performers are scrubbing off their make-up. No more fireworks for another year.
No fireworks at all?
It’s illegal. Maybe a few more at Chinese New Year, but that’s it.
Do you miss it?
She lights her cigarette to give herself time to think; he gallantly cups his free hand against the wind. I don’t know. Not really. Not miss, as such.
But it’s been a while since you’ve—
A little while. It’s like if you come from—his accent is hard to place, but she guesses—Idaho, you might be fond as anything of Idaho, but you don’t actually want to live there. Right? So you go away. I’ve gone away.
How long? he asks.
She tries not to count, but of course she knows, and tells him how many months. She could do it to the day, if he wanted more accuracy. I’m not on the run from the police or anything—well, not in that way—You just need to be somewhere else, sometimes.
Do you want to go back? He has the look of a man who understands the impulse to run away, but has never managed to get very far.
She shrugs. I don’t make plans any more. They’ve never worked out for me. It is a good line, and she has practiced it. If said with sufficient panache, the right mixture of insouciance and wry humor, it generally prevents further questions.
You’ll go back, he says, and she answers, Maybe. They leave it there.
They smoke greedily. Like people who don’t do it very often, they want to extract as much nicotine as possible with each breath. Not to rule out another one straight after this, but then it might be weeks till the next binge. Her brain blurs pleasantly, and she can see with greater clarity. Actually, the view from the escape is not unpleasant. Three inoffensive brownstones, more metal ladders, the edge of a communal garden. Climbing up two steps and leaning out a little, she can just about see a snatch of the High Line. He is talking somewhat defensively about gentrification, about how the Meatpacking District wasn’t nearly so exclusive when they first moved in.
I hope I’m not keeping you from– she bites off the sentence. He says, All I have to do is make dinner before Eleanor gets home. It won’t take long. I’ve marinated the tofu. She’s a vegetarian. Again trying not to sound overly deliberate on each mention of the wife, but there isn’t a way to do this naturally. Her eyes drift to his fourth finger, which has a ring on it, so.
He lights a new cigarette from the end of the old one, and offers her the packet. She does the same. Being together makes them feel naughty, like children escaping a classroom together. Not the familiar guilt of allowing time to slide irretrievably between her fingers, the choking weight of things undone, things she should do, accumulating day by day and paralyzing her all the more. This is illicit, a moment stolen out of normality.
What does Eleanor do? she keeps her voice casual too, but it is like pressing a bruise.
Yoga teacher, he says, straightening his neck and making some kind of adjustment to his spine. Studio on Bleecker. Big sign on the pavement. You’ve probably walked by.
A geyser of wind sweeps between the rows of buildings and pastes stray plastic bags into trees. The heat disappears for a second, but before she can shiver it is back. You should have a barbecue out here, she says.
He pretends to consider this. Not many guests. A barbecue for two.
All you need is a grill big enough for two burgers and a sausage.
Bit perverse, he says, Lighting an open fire on a fire escape.
Speaking of fire—and he reaches towards her, clumsily. Neither of them can move their feet much in this space, and rather than lean back into emptiness she raises her arm in a gesture of protection. The left hand would have meant nothing worse than a splash of coke to the face, but she has instinctively used her right. Motherf—he snaps the word in two, timorously polite even in the face of a cigarette burn to the inside wrist.
Sorry, I was just—she reaches for his hand but he pulls away. You might have—that was a bit sudden.
How am I going to explain this? He pulls away his probing finger. There is going to be a scar, neat and pea-sized.
Deep fry the tofu. Tell her the oil spattered. She is rather pleased with this, but he just glares at her. Well, she tries again, somewhat defensively, You should have asked first.
Oh, for—He draws a deep breath. I was just going to, and he reaches out again. She flinches slightly but forces herself to remain where she is. He rubs her cheek hard and shows her his finger, which is now ashy grey.
The wind must have—she looks at the burnt column dangling off her cigarette, and tips it carefully over the side. Sorry. I was just—
Forget it, he says, gruffly.
Do you want me to go now?
Oh, stay, whatever. A day like this. Pee-stained and ash-burned. It’s almost biblical.
We could start a new National Day tradition. She smiles at the idea. The undergrads are probably on their way back to their dorm or wherever. Somewhere with chicken curry in the fridge, carefully prepared the night before, and someone’s mother’s sambal belachan in a jar, duty-free beer, other good things. They’ll talk for fifteen minutes about whether this year’s parade was better than the last, compare it ironically to the Olympics opening ceremony, and then move on to something else.
The sun is almost directly overhead now, bleaching the pale stone of his building and illuminating the dancing dust in the bedroom. There is no one out that she can see, no one at all, the alleyway and back gardens are empty, not even a cat, not even a shadow shifting in the windows opposite. She has heard there are abattoirs still amongst the expensive apartment blocks, along with a handful of the packing plants that gave the area its name. Crates of raw flesh, being loaded onto trucks.
He has seen the funny side and is smiling at her now, still nursing his forearm. If anything was going to happen—but of course it never was. She pulls the thought into daylight and laughs at it. He stands before her, schlubby, well-meaning, waiting for the joke to be explained. When she just smiles back at him, he says, Another coke?
Why not? she tips the end of her cigarette into the empty can, adds the previous butt from the window sill, and hands the lot to him. Never enough caffeine and sugar.
Whatever gets you through the day. He climbs back into the dinginess of the flat. After a moment, she hears the tap start. He must be running cold water over his arm. She allows herself a dab of guilt—but it was an accident, and he will heal, and who gets to be an adult without visible scars?
She sits on the edge of the platform, her legs dangling over the ladder. Just a little longer, she senses, probably no more than thirty minutes, and it will be time to go, to wander from his home, imagining the buildings she walks past each holding a slaughterhouse, hacking great slabs of animal into manageable chunks, hosing blood off concrete floors. But for a few minutes longer, this can be a place of safety. That’s fine, no more is required.
Her day needs remarkably little to gain a shape, to feel less empty at the end. She doesn’t know where she’ll be tomorrow, or even an hour from now, but she’ll be somewhere. The wind fluffs her hair and she tilts her head back, admiring the lacquered blue bowl of the sky, wondrously cloudless, empty apart from the white blaze of the sun. There is nothing else, no fireworks, but it’ll do.