Maybe will finish this some day. It’s static for now, but I wanted to post a thing
I was born on October 12, 1978. The first phrase that came to my head as I slid out into the world, frazzled and distressed, was Oh shit (glancing around) oh shit. It was a strip-lit room with speckled ceilings where everyone looked tired and like shit. There were 12 squares of perforated eggshell ceiling and through the gap of one square I could see either a bat or a rat peeking down at me with wet, timid eyes. I had not barged through the fertility fortress and a prism of salmon-coloured light for this. I had not been stifled for 8.5 months for this. I had not gotten all excited for this.I clenched my fists and sulked. I was wrapped up and carried away, out of the hospital and into a car, out of a car and into a one-bedroom flat in Tuas, overlooking a crumbling jetty that stuck out like a burnt tongue.
I waited for 49 days before I said anything.
Please, could you bring me there, I want water.
Those are the first words I spoke to my astonished mother, who had been crying by the telephone. How can I describe early impressions of my mother? She had big hair, permed high up on her head, and as if struggling under the weight of those stiff follicles, a look of mild, perpetual hurt- either worrying or fashionable. Her fingers shook and her mouth hung open.
Of course, she replied, and lifted me onto my high chair where I wrapped my hands around a pale yellow tumbler, and did not drink until she had turned away. She lit a cigarette. A curl of smoke, milky-blue and pungent, trailed out of the window.
My mother then was younger than I am now by a good twenty or twenty-five years. Isn’t it funny how the older you get, the older your conception of “old” becomes? Forty to me is now young. Thirty to me is a zygote. Twenty to me is a suggestive glance.
My first year was the one referred to in the newspapers as “The Great Tumble Down of 78’”. Buildings all over the world began to cave and shudder, afflicted by structural arthritis transmitted by promiscuous pigeons. The air crackled with the sound of paint and detritus peeling off to reveal brick walls engraved with poor depictions of breasts, penises and small animals. Ugly and bad. It all looks so ugly, I gulped. My mother shushed me with a distracted click of her tongue, her polka-dotted sleeve damp with my snot and tears. She carried me through the mouldy, firecracker-lit alleyways. Brittle buildings had to be rebuilt or reinforced. The country was too young and too scant in resources to accommodate this. All the money and minerals were being used to dredge up new land, to expand the tiny island. Men ran amuck, shamefaced and criminal. You could not pop to the provision shop to buy milk or bread any later than 8pm. The train station closed up, and the shops stayed shuttered long into Tuesday.
My mother started working as a desk clerk in the New Serangoon Hotel so that she could save up for my education. You’re too clever to go to just any old ah-beng ah-seng school, she said. Her line manager was T.T.S, a despicable man with large pores and a cowlick, who leered at her ass and the back of her legs. He looks at me like he wants to eat me up, she said, smiling slightly, slipping her shoes off by the kitchenette. Is he a candyball? I asked. I had learnt about cannibals from a story in the news about a bearded man in the United States who ate people and kept the leftovers in jars under his porch. My mother told me we were too far from fear, being walls and oceans away from the United States.
I met T.T.S only a few times- a looming, clumsy figure, all sleaze and package rates, scratching my chin like it was a stain on a blanket. One day, I bit him. Unfortunately I had only a couple of teeth and so it was more of a clamping- the feeble clamping of a small, angry mouth. He did not even have the courtesy to be furious. Instead, he laughed and fed me a pineapple tart. My mother frowned and fidgeted from the corner of the office as my face filled with crumbs.
I wish it wasn’t a cliché, the single mother thing, my mother sighed, later that evening. Men think you are an easy target, a bit of fun, or they avoid you, like you have a disease. A cliché is something that has been said before, over and over again. Of course you knew that already, little brain.
People are stupid sometimes, I replied, apropos of nothing, as she spooned fish porridge into my mouth. I’m happy we are not like that. I am happy I don’t have to worry (swallowing porridge) about that.
I spoke too soon. Days passed. I bloomed from a bigheaded baby into a po-faced boy; chicken-chested, astigmatic, allergic to everything. My mother grew squatter, paler, brow-furrowed and a little erased. After a rainy season where she would drop me at home and stay out all night, she returned one day and told me she would never do anything like that ever again. I’ve been so selfish leaving you by yourself, she said. What if the whole building caved in, while I was away. She took to wearing less make up and accumulating patterns of exhaustion; smoking militantly, tut-tutting at game shows on television, adopting a uniform of bland cream cotton dresses. Beauty withdrew itself from her skin cells- a flattening of colour, a draining-out. Now if she kept quiet she completely dissolved into the thrice-plastered walls, becoming nothing more than a short-nailed, smoking hand with its amber nib. At school and all of a sudden, everyone had caught up with me- even raced ahead. My full sentences and active verbs were no longer a thing of marvel, and so I became reticent, and even developed a mild stammer. I did not know how to interact with my endlessly talkative peers. I was convinced I was smarter than them, that I had the head start- yet I was the one wheezing by the field; I was the one lingering on my own by the tuck shop; I was the one squinting at inscrutable sums.
How is schoolwork coming along? my mother asked, stirring tea leaves in a porcelain cup.
Good, I answered. I’m best in class. Safe in my backpack sat the stiff yellow report cards in their plastic covers, stammer staccato C-C-C-Ds in typewritten ink, hovering above my mother’s forged signature in Red Leaf ballpoint- the hurried, indelicate squiggle of a typist ashamed of her own handwriting. It was easy. I was too mild-mannered and well behaved for my teachers to suspect anything, and even if they did, they remained indifferent.
By my 8th birthday I realised I would never fit into the conspiracy of adulthood. I tried telling this to my mother, but I could not find the words.