Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Separation Anxiety

A few days ago, my friend Jane rang to tell me she and Peter were divorcing.

“It’s just not working out,” she sighed. “We can’t even stand being in the same room together anymore.”

First of all, what do you say to someone who’s divorcing a man she first dated way back in high school?
“They’re getting divorced?” Amanda gasped, her pretty eyes wide.
“Is that even legal in Singapore?” Saffy wondered aloud.

Who saw this coming? No one. If Barack and Michelle Obama had been born Chinese, they would have looked like Jane and Peter. If they weren’t actually such nice people, you’d have hated them and looked for the nearest staircase to push them down. She was tall and pretty with long lustrous ebony hair, and was captain of the netball team. He was tall, buff with a perpetual tan as well as being captain of the hockey team.

Everyone loved them. When Peter’s mother died in our third year of high school, all the cleaning ladies showed up at the funeral crying hysterically. And you could just tell that, one day, they were going to live in a house with a garden, a dog, and a SUV filled with gorgeous children who played the violin and had IQs in the high 100s.

After high school, they went away to university, Jane to Cambridge to study medicine, and Peter to Oxford to read philosophy. And when they got married on a beach in the Maldives…well, my point is, divorce was never on the cards for these two.

“What do you mean they grew apart?” Amanda demanded. “How is that possible? He’s gorgeous!”

“Jane says she feels suffocated by Peter,” I reported.

“That woman is crazy! I’d give anything to be suffocated by Peter!” Saffy sighed, her magnificent bosom swelling at the fantasy.

For days after, it was all the girls could talk about. Much of the discussion centred around the idea that – in spite of the Tiffany commercials to which they were both hopelessly addicted – love might not, in fact, be forever. After all, if anyone was going to make it forever, it was meant to be this Golden Couple. And if this was the case, that love was just a momentary lapse in judgment, it then threw into question the whole point of dating and looking for Mr Right. Especially if after all that work, everyone was going to end up in some stuffy, expensive lawyer’s office dividing up the assets, planning visitation schedules for the children and then, if you were like Madonna, starting the whole dating process all over again.

As Saffy observed with her usual penetrating insight, “How depressing would that be?”

A few days later, the girls had afternoon tea with Jane. To their surprise, she looked radiant. “It’s such a relief to finally admit that we’re not right for each other,” Jane confided. “He was just irritating the hell out of me!”

Amanda looked flustered. “But, but…But you were so much in love!”

Jane rolled her eyes. “You’ve obviously never been married. Love doesn’t last. It’s replaced by routine. Because what nobody tells you is just how much hard work a relationship is! And when you have kids, you’re lucky if you even have two minutes of quality time together. I think I’ll take some time off, go to Bali and meditate. I need some me-time, I think,” she said wistfully.

Saffy looked pained. This was obviously not what she wanted to hear because it made her wonder just why she spent each Friday night primping for a date and the following week waiting for the guy to call her. As she later posted on Facebook: “If it’s all going to end in divorce, I should just take up a cookery course. It would be so much more USEFUL!”

Meanwhile, I had a drink with Peter. He too looked rested and relaxed. “I can’t believe we stayed married for so long!” he grinned as he gulped down his beer. I said that divorce obviously suited him. “You bet. I’ve been on three dates this week!” he grinned, while I choked into my gin and tonic. “It’s good to be back on the market!”

“He’s already dating?” Amanda squealed. “But he’s just gotten divorced!”

This morning, Saffy headed out to get a new outfit. “Uhm, I need new clothes,” she explained vaguely, while Amanda picked up the phone to book a facial. I’m thinking I should warn Peter. He won’t stand a chance. But then, it’s his fault for getting divorced in the first place.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

High Resolution

So it’s nearly the end of the year as I write this. I’m still in London, I’m still cold, it’s not even 4.30pm and it’s already pitch dark outside. So I’m staying indoors and thinking about the new year.

Soon, it'll be 2010. A brand new year. And a brand new decade. Which is as good a time as any to assess my life so far. I do this every year. I look back. Take stock of what I did right. What I did wrong. Get depressed. Get drunk. Wake up the next day with a hangover and swear I’ll never do anything that stupid again.

I remember there was a time when I’d get on a bus, look around me, and smugly realize that I was the youngest person on board. The Future stretched ahead of me. And it was filled with Plans. Big Plans.

One year, I came home from school and told my mother that I wanted to be an astro-physicist. She looked up from the mahjong table, her hands not missing a beat as she clicked and clacked the tiles into neat stacks. “I bet you can’t even spell the word!” she said.

My sister Michelle says it’s a miracle that none of us turned into homicidal maniacs with a penchant for home-made explosive devices.

Looking back, I see my mother’s point though. Between the ages of seven and 17, I changed career plans the way Madonna changes her hair colour. Who could keep up?

When I was 8, I wanted to be a doctor and discover the cure for cancer. Two years later, I wanted to be a paranormal investigator. And when I was 13, I watched an illegal DVD of ‘Speed’ and told my father that I was going to be a bomb-disposal expert. My mother overhead the comment and said, “But you’re colour-blind! Guess what’s going to happen when you snip the wrong coloured wire? Kaboom!” Her fingers, dazzling with diamonds, danced in the air.

The day I graduated from Law School, my mother was practically catatonic with sheer happiness. “Finally!” she said to me in the car on the way home from the graduation ceremony. And that’s all she said. But I knew she was proud as hell because the children of her mahjong kaki told me they were sick of their mothers coming home and berating them for being such useless layabouts when May-Ling Hahn’s son had become a lawyer.

The day I announced I was leaving private practice to become a freelance writer, my mother didn’t attend her afternoon mahjong session. All her friends were convinced she had died and called the police.

These days, when I get on the bus, I realize I am no longer the youngest person on the bus. Sometimes, kids call me “uncle” and I suddenly realize that the big Future that once stretched ahead of me is now in my Past.

But the bigger question is this: What have I done with my life? If I got run over by a bus today, would my last thought be: “I’ve had a great time, I have no regrets! Oooh, what’s that bright shining light?” Or would it be: “Are you kidding me? I skipped dessert and now I’m dying? Oooh, what’s that bright shining light?”

I think I’ve done well, especially this past year. I’ve written for a whole bunch of magazines. My editors seem to like me. Well, they’re returning my calls – and, in Singapore, lemme tell ya, that’s a big deal. Sure, I’ve not made a whole tonne of money, especially compared to my legal days, but I make enough to pay the rent, go on holiday and still have some left over to stash away for a rainy day.

My flatmate Saffy thinks I’m over-analysing things. “Listen,” she said the other day, her fabulous bosom straining over a super tight tee-shirt that declared ‘My eyes aren’t here!’

“This whole taking stock in the new year’s is too depressing. Life’s too short. You gotta live it, grab it by the balls and hang on! That’s what I do!” she said with immense satisfaction.

“Yes, and you wonder why your dates never call the next day!” Amanda sighed.

Saffy giggled and waved her napkin at Amanda. “No, I’m serious! You can’t control your destiny. Every day is Life’s way of surprising you. What you do with that surprise is up to you.”

Amanda later said that just when you thought you were totally done under-estimating Saffy, she turned around and surprised you with depth.

Me, I’ve decided to call my mother more often. And to stop taking the bus.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Clean Break

The other day, my friend Patricia came over to lunch. I stirred a spoonful of sambal belachan that my Auntie Wai-ling had given me into a pot of oil, threw in a handful of spaghetti and ten minutes later, set a plate of sambal pasta before her.

“Mmm, this smells divine,” Patricia sighed with pleasure. You can always spot a Peranakan girl a mile away. Then she extracted a tissue from her pocket, picked up her fork and wiped it.

I blinked. “What are you doing?”

She looked up and caught me staring at her polishing my clean fork. “Oh!” she said giggling. “Sorry, lah. I forgot where I was!”

Later, I recounted the story to Amanda who said that obviously Patricia had not had a home cooked meal since forever, if she had such an ingrained reflex action. “Poor thing! What on earth are her parents doing all day?” Saffy said she’d have scratched out Patricia’s eyes.

“I’m sure she didn’t mean to be insulting,” Amanda said reasonably.

Saffy’s bosom inflated. “I don’t care. I’ve never liked her. And I don’t trust her. She’s too thin and pretty.”

If nothing else, the episode reminded me that we live in a germ infested world and that for many people, you just can never be too careful or too clean.

Whenever she returns from an overseas trip, Amanda will carefully wipe down her luggage with a dish cloth rinsed with Dettol. As she once pointed out, “My suitcase might be Prada, but it’s spent a lot of time with other crappy pieces of luggage in the airplane hold, and who knows where they’ve been? Cheap hostels and filthy Third World pavements, I’m sure.” She shuddered delicately.

I bring my own towel whenever I travel. People laugh at me, but I really don’t care. All I can say is that the next time you’re at the hotel’s check-in desk, take a good look at the other guests and then imagine wiping your face with a towel that they’ve been using.

And, as Saffy once pointed out – speaking as someone who’d been on more than a few dirty weekends with horny boyfriends in her life – who knows what else they’ve used the towel to wipe down?

And when I get into my hotel room, the first thing I do is wipe down the telephone, remote control, light switches and toilet seat (in that order) with my trusty Lysol disinfectant spray.

Meanwhile, it used to confuse all of us why Saffy took such a long time in the toilet. “What have you been doing in there!” Amanda once cried when Saffy finally emerged from the toilets at the Shaw Centre cinema. “We’ve missed the opening credits!”

“I had to find a clean toilet! Some of the stalls had remnants in them, and some of them were wet! Really, I want to see how these people live at home! Do not tell me that they leave puddles at home too. One of the toilet seats actually had foot-prints on it! Do you mean that someone was actually standing on the seat?”

“I told you to go when we were at the Grand Hyatt!”

“But I didn’t want to go then! And this is another reason why I can’t go on a holiday to China!”

But according to Saffy, what takes longest is the lining of the toilet seat. After selecting the most suitable cubicle, she will carefully lay strips of toilet paper onto the seat. “Ideally, you need a cushion about three layers deep,” she explained. “You’d need more if the toilet paper is one of those cheap, useless tracing paper squares. And when I’ve done all that, I can sit down and relax.”

“But Saffy, you’re just peeing!” Amanda said, her voice rising several octaves. (I’ve always said you can tell the woman has a Type A personality. You can’t look that good and naturally air-brushed without being in tight control of your life.)

“Peeing cannot be rushed,” Saffy replied serenely, like a yogi dispensing life-changing wisdom.

A few days ago, Patricia rang to apologise for wiping down her cutlery at our lunch. “I’m so embarrassed when I think about it! I didn’t mean to imply that your kitchen was dirty. It’s a force of habit from always eating in a hawker stall.”

Amanda said at least Patricia hadn’t put a packet of tissue paper on our dining room chairs. “But otherwise, such good manners!” she said with approval.

“I still don’t like her,” Saffy said stubbornly. “I bet she’s the kind of girl who rushes her peeing.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cold Comfort

You probably can’t tell, but I’m writing this while sitting in a very cold flat in London. Incredibly, my sister, who lived here for years, says that there’s never been any heating. She says every spring, summer, autumn and winter she complained to my parents, but they always refused to send over a cheque to install a new heater.

“You complain every month?” I once asked her. “Even in summer?”

Michelle sniffed and said that it’s always cold in London and that summer happens just one day a year. Too bad if you’re out of town when it happens. “Last year, summer happened on a Wednesday. This year, it was yesterday.”

So, this morning, with the thermometer reading 5 degrees, I wrapped myself up in every piece of clothing I could find in the flat and added a blanket, trudged downstairs and knocked on my neighbour’s flat. This cranky old biddy answered the door.

“Who is it?” she demanded.

“Sorry, Mrs Lord, it’s me, but is your heating on?”

“Go away! I have no spare change!”

“It’s Jason, Mrs Lord! I live upstairs!” I shouted, suddenly remembering that not only does Mrs Lord have advanced dementia, she’s also stone deaf. “I’ve been coming here every summer since I was three. I once peed on your couch. Remember?”

The old cow scowled at me. “Please go away! I’m not interested in your Scientology rubbish!” Then, she slammed the door in my face. The breeze from the force made me even colder.

I don’t know what it is with the English and the cold, but they just don’t seem to notice it. You just have to wander the streets and you’ll see people walking around in thin shirts and flimsy jackets. They don’t seem remotely cold, I think enviously, as I wish I’d worn a fifth layer of thermal underwear.

(The English also don’t believe in umbrellas. It could be pouring and people just walk around hunched over. The weirdest thing is that they never seem to get wet. Meanwhile, the only people scurrying around with an umbrella are the Asians. The slightest hint of precipitation and the Asian will pop open an umbrella. If you go to Chinatown when it’s raining, you’re at risk of getting your eyes poked out by an umbrella. It’s just like being in Singapore which is why I feel very much at home in Chinatown. Even if the dim sum is generally rubbish.)

So, anyway, I’m cold. It’s the dead of winter in London, the heater doesn’t work and I’m cold. I tried whacking the heater with a spanner like they do in the movies, but no joy. And of course, since the heater is connected to the boiler, there’s also no hot water.

Have you ever taken a shower when the ambient temperature indoors is 5 degrees and every time you open your mouth to say “Aiyoh”, the air is frosty? If you haven’t, you should really try it one day. It’s character building as my mother would say.
“I’m convinced we’re adopted,” my sister said to me the other day when she rang to see how I was surviving. “She would never put up with this, but somehow, we’re expected to! We should report her to the police.”

In spite of myself, I giggled at the image of our mother wearing blue prison overalls and slumming it in the slammer. In my defence, the cold does strange things to people.

“I’ve had to shower in the gym down the road,” I reported, my teeth chattering only slightly. “Thank God someone has kept up the membership fees on that place! How did you survive here all these years?”

“Don’t get me started,” Michelle said grimly. “Why do you think the linen cupboard is stacked high with hot water bottles?”

All I can say is that I will never again complain about the heat. Saffy Skyped me morning to say that it was nice and warm in Singapore. “Lemme tell ya,” she said, her ample bosom inflating with an unexpected 3-D quality, “if I’d been one of those early pioneer explorers, England would never have been found! Why would anyone voluntarily go and live there, I wonder? And there’s no fried beehoon there, right?”

I paused and thought. “No, not that I know of.”

Saffy sighed. “There you go then. I couldn’t live there. My constipation would just turn to a block of solid ice inside me, and I’d topple over and die!”

Amanda SMS’d me: “How does Saffy turn every conversation around to her problems?”

I’m so cold, I really don’t care anymore.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Waxing Lyrical

Call me So Last Century, but I’d never been terribly bothered with waxing. Why bother, I asked: it’s an exercise in abject futility since the hair will grow back faster than you can say “Simon Cowell”.

So here’s the thing. If you read trashy gossip mags with the same religious devotion that I do, you’ll have seen those photos of Simon’s suddenly all-white, fuzz-free hands. One minute, he had Hairy Gorilla paw, and the next, it was all gone. It’s all over the newspapers in London and it’s all anyone can talk about. Iraq War? Debt crisis in Dubai? Child poverty? Global warming? What?

I know people who get waxed with the regularity you would normally associate with the Pope and Mass. Any sign of hair, and they’ll wax it off. No area on the body is off limits. Nostril hair, ear hair, between the eyebrows, on the back of fingers, arms, back (and all the other body parts that rhyme with ‘back’ – you go figure it out), legs, toes. And of course, the va-jay-jay.

My flatmates Saffy and Amanda have spent a small fortune on waxing their bodies; though, in Saffy’s case, she has almost no body hair to speak of (none that are visible to polite company, anyway), so I figure she shows up at her waxing salon every two weeks just for a chat.

“When was the last time you got waxed?” Amanda asked me the other day at lunch.

“Since never,” I said smugly. “And think of all the money I’ve saved!”

Amanda’s pretty nose wrinkled as if something had crawled under our dining table and died. “It’s a wonder you’ve not been deported.”

Just then, her handphone rang. She clicked it on and even before she could bring it to her ear, I could hear Saffy’s scream: “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!”
“Saf, calm down!” Amanda instructed sternly. “What’s happened? Uh huh. Uh huh. Yes? Uh huh. Ooh, that’s nice. Uh huh…Oh. No! What?...Ohmygodohmygod! How did that happen? Stay there, I’m on my way!”

I could tell that something wonderfully dramatic had just happened, but Amanda was practically incoherent as she grabbed her handbag and rushed out the door, all the while shouting, “Ohmygod!”

“Why is there always so much drama in your flat?” Karl asked me later over drinks.
“Isn’t it stressful?”

“Only if it involves me. But it’s all great material for my column. I swear you couldn’t make this kind of thing up,” I said as I proceeded to tell him what happened.

It turned out that Saffy had arrived at her waxing salon for her bi-weekly Brazilian. Only this time, she’d decided that she wanted to try something new. Just her luck that her regular wax therapist was on holiday and she was assigned a new girl.

“From China!” Saffy said darkly much later. “She might as well have been from the North Pole for all her comprehension of English!” Apparently, she’d told Xiao Wei that she wanted to prune her South of the Border into the shape of an upside-down triangle. She even drew a diagram and shaded in the triangle. “This is what I want!” she told Xiao Wei, while stabbing the paper with her pencil.

Xiao Wei peered at the diagram and nodded. “OK. I can do.”

So Saffy lay back and day-dreamed of, as she tends to do these days, Robert Pattinson while Xiao Wei got on with the job. And when she announced that she was done, Saffy sat up with great satisfaction and peered down. There was a pause. Then she started screaming. And she didn’t stop screaming till Amanda arrived.

“Look what she did!” she shouted and promptly dropped the towel she was wearing. Amanda gasped. Poor Xiao Wei was, by this time, a blubbering mess. “But you say you want a triangle!” she cried.

“Yes, but I want hair in the triangle!” Saffy screamed back. “You’ve done the opposite! That’s why I shaded in the triangle! To show where I wanted hair! Why would I want to have a hairless triangle? Who does that? Can we sue? I want to sue!” she shouted at Amanda who was still staring at Saffy’s oddly landscaped va-jay-jay with horror.

“Imagine if Saffy had done IPL instead!” Amanda later told me. “At least it will all grow back eventually.”

But Saffy still wants to sue even though the salon has offered her free waxing for life. “What if I’d been prepping for a hot date?” she asked. I wanted to add, especially if that hot date had been Simon Cowell, but the look in Saffy’s hunted eyes stopped me.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Comfort Zone

Relationships are funny things. When you’re single, you spend every waking minute wishing you were in one and stressing that you’re going to end up alone and living in a cardboard box under a bridge. And when you’re finally in one, you catch yourself – usually as you’re putting up the laundry, or screaming at the kids – wistfully thinking about the good old days when you were single and fancy free.

My mother always says that if she had her life all over again, she’d never have gotten married. And at some stage in our lives, she’s said this to each of my brother, sister and me: “You know, as I was lying there on the operating table trying to push you out of me, thinking that I’d rather be dead, I swore to myself that I’d never do it again. Ever! And look how much you’ve ended up costing us!”

I think she probably said it out of some misguided sense that she was helping us in some way, by imparting a valuable life lesson in staying single, footloose, and debt free. My sister has since spent her whole life complaining to her therapist: “My mother always considered me a cost centre! Seriously, it’s a wonder I’m not a bigger nut case!”

Meanwhile, as soon as he was able to walk, my brother tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and our parents. When he was 8, he sneaked out of the house and was found a mile away hiding under the table of our local pub. And when he turned 20, and got his hands on the first installment of our grandfather’s trust fund, he packed up a tiny rucksack and went trekking in Nepal.

“He’s so ungrateful,” my mother will complain to all her mahjong kaki. “Not even a postcard on my birthday.” On cue, her tai-tai friends will cluck, though I know for a fact that Mrs Yang recently disinherited her daughter on the dubious grounds that she’d married an Australian man, while Mrs Tang’s husband is having an affair with his twice divorced Indian secretary, so they should be the last people to be casting stones, if you ask me.

“This must be why I’m still single,” my sister moaned to me on Facebook the other day.

Which reminded me of the conversation my flatmate Amanda had with her girlfriend Sheryl.

Sheryl had been single for the longest time, but one drunken evening, at her firm’s end of financial year party, she woke up to find herself in bed with her boss. There’d been a lot of flirting going on over the course of the year and between the canapĂ©s and the champagne, inhibitions were shed and assorted sins were committed.

The morning after, Sheryl and her boss assessed the situation and decided that they rather enjoyed each other’s company and what they did after office hours was really nobody’s business but their own. Within six months, Sheryl had moved into his apartment. And on the eight month, he proposed. But here’s the kicker: she told Amanda over afternoon tea that though she’d told him that she loved him at least a million times, he’d never actually said it back to her.

Amanda blinked. “What, like never never?”

“Never,” Sheryl said firmly. “Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Aw, that’s sweet’. And the other day, he said, ‘Thank you’.”

Amanda gasped. “Oh my God! Do men still say that?”

“Apparently.”

But the best part was a recent declaration of ‘I love you’ by Sheryl, to which her boss slash fiancĂ©e replied, “Thank you. I feel very comfortable with you!”

Of course, the minute Amanda left Sheryl, she immediately speed-dialed Saffy.

“What is wrong with men?” Saffy wanted to know. “Why can’t they just say ‘I love you’ back? These are not difficult words to say! It’s a total of three lousy syllables.”

The subject haunted the girls for days and formed the subject of endless threads on Facebook. The unanimous female verdict was that men were basically scum. The hostile level was high until Peter calmly tapped out a comment: “Yes, but is this guy cheating on your friend, S? Does he physically, emotionally or verbally abuse her? Because if he doesn’t, then why are all you girls so hung up on whether or not he will say ‘I love you’?”

“Who is this Peter guy?” Saffy asked.

“He’s a friend of Marlene’s,” Amanda replied after she checked.

“Is he straight and single?”

“Apparently.”

“He makes an interesting point,”said Saffy. “I’m intrigued.” Later that night, she sent Peter a ‘Send Request’ friend app. “Maybe he’d like to get comfortable with me,” she said, hopefully.