Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hissy fit

The subject of snakes came up the other day during dinner. On the menu was spaghetti and meatballs, and for some reason, Amanda suddenly announced that the slippery texture of the pasta reminded her of snakes.

Of course, that was all it took for Saffy and me to put our folks down and push our chair back from the table. To my credit, I remained outwardly calm but Saffy’s formidable bosom began to heave asthmatically.

“Seriously, Amanda,” I began.

“You are just sick!” Saffy hissed, her eyes narrowing to slits.

Amanda looked astonished. “What?”

“You know how we feel about those…those things!” I said.

Saffy nodded. “And thanks to you, I can’t ever eat pasta again because every time, I do, I will be thinking about…about what they look like…and, oh God, I need to get away from this table!”

And with that, Saffy got up from the table and disappeared into her room. The next morning, she said she didn’t sleep a wink. “I kept imagining there were snakes crawling up my bed and under my sheets!” she reported. “And the air-con kept me awake because it kept hissing at me, so I turned that off, and then it got too hot and I had to open the window, but then I‘d read somewhere that there are snakes that can climb up trees and leap ten feet in the air and I kept thinking it would be just my luck that one of them decided to leap into my open window right onto my bed! So, I got up and closed the window and of course, I couldn’t sleep because it was so hot. I am a mess!” Saffy moaned.

Now, I know there are readers out there who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. “Snakes?” they’re probably thinking. “What’s he on about? Nothing wrong with them! Not the friendliest creatures I know, but I’ve got nothing against them anymore than I have against, ooh, say, chickens. And they taste good in a soup too!”

The thing is, I’ve always been afraid of snakes. Can’t stand them. Can’t stand the idea of them. Can’t stand the look of them. Can’t stand even the word. And, of course, like all phobias, it’s utterly irrational since as far as I can tell, I’ve never actually met a real snake. My sister, who has the same fear, thinks it must be a reincarnation thing. “We probably fell into a snake pit in a previous life,” she told me when she was 10 and I was eight. I had nightmares for six months and for years afterwards, I would ask everyone I met what their Chinese horoscope was and if the answer was ‘snake’, I ran for the distant horizon and never looked back.

Leave it to my mother to tell us the story of when her father fell ill, he drank his way back to health with a tonic made from a snake marinated in alcohol. Even at the age of seven, I remember thinking it was the most revolting thing I’d ever heard of in my life.

Years later, I read about this stupid schmuck who kept an anaconda as a pet and then one day when it got hungry, the dumb thing turned around, strangled its owner and then swallowed him. It was the grossest thing I’d ever read but all I could think about was that it served the guy right. “Why, oh why would anyone be stupid enough to have an anaconda as a pet?” I asked Barney Chen who replied that thinking about questions like that gave you wrinkles.

Meanwhile, Saffy is so annoyed with Amanda that they’ve not spoken in days. “Can you believe that anyone would be so cruel to say such a thing? I love pasta and now I can’t even walk past an Italian restaurant!” she posted on Facebook.

Her best friend Sharyn said all this reminded her of the time when she was growing up in a kampong in Kelantan in Malaysia and one day, while her granny was squatting on outdoor toilet, she looked down and saw a snake peering back up at her. When she heard that story, Saffy was simultaneously frightened out of her wits and furious. That night, she took Sharyn off her Facebook friends list.

“Oh God,” she groaned to me. “Now, I can’t even go to the toilet! Why do people tell us such horrible stories?”

“They’ll be punished in their next lives,” I promised her while thinking about the SMS I’d received that afternoon from Amanda: “In HMV. Am buying ‘Snakes on the Plane’ for Saffy. Haha!”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bag of Tricks

They say that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he packs his luggage. And when I say ‘They say’, I really mean ‘I say’.

People who are naturally messy in life – messy desk, unmade bed and even messier love life – will just throw their clothes into their Samsonite. They then find that the luggage won’t close naturally and will have to sit on the lid to lock it. These are usually also the same people who, at the airport check-in counter, are told that they are overweight and need to either unload some things or pay excess luggage. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy standing behind these people as they are forced to open their luggage in front of everyone and everything spills out: dirty underwear, tacky souvenir purchases, crushed boxes of chocolates, flattened soft toys, terrible fashion and dog-eared copies of porn magazines, I’ve seen them all. And when you’re stuck in a check-in queue, this kind of drama is hugely entertaining.

Then you have people like my friend Barney Chen who carefully sorts out all his clothes into neat vacuum sealed packs. I’ve never quite worked out what his system is. Sometimes, the packs are organized by days. Sometimes, it’s by outfit. Sometimes, it’s by occasion. Meanwhile, his toiletries – all neatly decanted into matching Muji bottles – are carefully slipped into ziplock bags.

Barney Chen is the god of packing, and he’s my idol. I’m convinced if everyone packed like him, the world would be a much nicer place.

“I really don’t think it’s normal to pack like that,” Saffy said firmly the other day after she came back from a visit to Barney’s flat. Out of a combination of sheer boredom and idle curiosity, she’d spent the afternoon watching him pack for a three day business trip to Hong Kong. “His suitcase was like when you open the box that your new TV arrives in. Everything fit together like a neat jig-saw puzzle. If you ask me, it’s the sign of an unhealthy mind,” she declared, her bosom trembling a little.

I replied that this was really rich coming from a woman who carefully arranges the magazines on our lounge table into a fan pattern.

“That’s so different!” Saffy puffed and disappeared into her room with a whiff of Chanel No. 5 and injured dignity.

A few days later, Amanda announced that she and her on-again, off-again insectile looking boyfriend – aka The Cockroach – were going off to Hong Kong for a week’s holiday.

“Why?” Saffy asked.

“Well, because we both have holidays to clear and there are cheap flights to Hong…”

“No, what I meant was, why are you still dating that loser?”

Amanda later complained to me that it was a pity she’d ever told Saffy all her deepest and darkest secrets, because she’d have kicked Saffy out of our flat in a New York second if she wasn’t so frightened that Saffy would turn right around and blackmail her.

As it was, Amanda nobly ignored Saffy’s question. “My point is,” she said icily, “it came up during our conversation that I would be bringing my Louis Vuitton trolley bag and Cockroach said that I should just bring a back-pack.”

This time, it was Saffy’s turn to sit up. “What, in addition to your trolley bag?”

“No. Instead of.”

“And check-in luggage?”


“What, a week in Hong Kong with just a back-pack?” Saffy asked.

“Yes. And he got a little upset when I said I needed to check in some luggage. He says he hates waiting for luggage to come off a plane.”

“And you’re still dating this man because…”

“Oh, shut up, Saffy!”

For days, it was all Amanda could talk about. “What is it with some guys? Does he seriously think that I wake up each morning looking like this?” she demanded, waving her hand over her perfectly made up face, expensively coiffed tresses and this season’s Prada and Jimmy Choo slingbacks. “I need a separate bag just for my make-up and toiletries. And what about my shopping? Does he think it can all fit into a back-pack?” Her face wrinkled into a frown. “And you know what, I don’t think I even know what a back-pack is!”

Saffy says this is one of the reasons why she’s sometimes actually glad that she’s single. It’s just too disheartening, she says, to have to discover that the man you might actually want to have children with has the EQ of a coffee bean. “If he’s like this on the subject of holiday bags, what will he be like when the topic of vasectomies comes up?” she wondered.

Friday, March 12, 2010

White Wash

Apparently, when girls are growing up, between loving the colour pink and scheming to steal their father away from their mother, they dream of a wedding dress.

I say ‘apparently’ because I have no real reference point for this statement. My mother says she can’t remember when she grew up because that would actually involve her having to pinpoint an actual decade and she gave up on that kind of pointless mental activity round about the time she turned 35.

Meanwhile, my sister says that, thanks to our mother, she had such a traumatic childhood it would take decades of repressed childhood therapy to dig up anything useful from that period let alone any recollection of any dreams of wedding dresses. And besides, she always says, men are scum, so why would anyone want to have anything to do with them let alone have a wedding with them? “Let alone in a wedding dress!” she will add, somewhat unnecessarily.

But I have it on good authority – ie, my two psychotic flatmates – that most normal girls, with relatively normal parents and a normal childhood, grow up dreaming of a wedding dress.

Apparently, girls don’t dream of the actual wedding, or the groom, or the wedding banquet, or even the stacks of ang pows piling up on the reception desk. Which is really weird because if I ever knew that a load of money in shiny glossy red packets was in my future, money would be all I would dream about. But then, girls are just strange. They don’t care about these practical things. Because as my mother once asked my fifteen year old sister with penetrating insight, “Do you think a wedding just pays for itself?” after Michelle announced that even if the Prince of England proposed to her, she would reject him.

But, no, girls don’t think about such things. They just dream of the wedding dress. And it’s usually a big fat fluffy white puff ball of a dress that makes the girl look like a collapsed soufflĂ©.

“I don’t know what it is,” Amanda sighed at a recent dinner at home. She paused mid-twirl of her spaghetti and looked up at the ceiling. “Maybe it’s the whole romance of the dress and what it represents, you know? I mean, my parents always had a framed picture of their wedding in their bedroom and I grew up looking at that picture. My father looked so dashing in his suit and my mother…my God, my mother!” Amanda actually put her hand on her chest and sighed. “She was radiant! Even in that black and white picture, she was radiant! And I wanted to be her!”

From the other end of the table, Saffy snorted. “Me, too!” she snuffled into her spaghetti. “Your father was a hottie! What? Why are you looking at me like that? I’m just saying!”

Maybe little girls dream about wedding dresses for the same reason they love fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. That collapsed soufflĂ© represents the idea of happiness which, in turn, represents the safety and comfort of home. Because isn’t a wedding supposed to be the happiest day of your life?

“Not for me, it wasn’t,” my mother said when I asked her. “I was five months pregnant with you when I got married to your father and I was petrified I wouldn’t be able to fit into that stupid dress! You were a big baby. I always thought you’d grow up to be fat like your Third Uncle. Thank God, you didn’t. Your sister, on the other hand…”

The other day, Amanda came home with a bundle of wedding magazines. “That whole discussion about wedding dresses the other night got me all wistful!” she told me with an accusing look. “The check out girl at Borders actually asked me when I was getting married. I had to make up a date, otherwise I would have looked like such a loser buying a stack of wedding magazines when I don’t even have a boyfriend!”

That evening, she curled up on the sofa flipping through page after page of cakes, wedding favours, to-do lists, decorating tips and dresses. Every so often, she’d murmur, “Mmm, that’s lovely!”, her fingers tracing the outlines of a dress on the smooth glossy page. And I’d catch the same look on her face she had when she was describing her mother’s wedding picture

I sent Saffy a text message: “Amanda is acting all weird. She’s reading a stack of wedding magazines and talking to herself!”

Saffy replied: “SHUT UP! I’m in a wedding boutique actually TRYING ON a wedding dress!”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Love Actually

One of the greatest mysteries of the world is not why Julia Roberts keeps making such forgettable movies or why people still take up both sides of the escalator, but rather why we fall in love with the people we do.

A few nights ago, my flatmates and I were invited to a cocktail party at our friend Mary’s house. “Very casual, one, so don’t dress up too much!” she’d instructed over the phone earlier in the day. As it turned out, everyone we knew was there at the party and by the looks of it, they’d all followed Mary’s dress code to the letter.

“Seriously,” Amanda, in full Miu-Miu, murmured out of the corner of her mouth, “I wouldn’t go to the wet market in anything these people are wearing! It’s disgraceful. Sharon!” she suddenly exclaimed, her bright eyes sparkling as she leaned over to kiss. “So lovely to see you! I love your denim shorts! Is it vintage?”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Saffy was busy mixing herself a particularly lethal gin and tonic. Her recipe, which she claims has been handed down to through the generations, basically involves a full glass of gin, and a teaspoon of tonic water. You could unclog a drain with the stuff.

“That looks like a strong drink,” said the girl next to her.

As Saffy later told us, the girl looked like she’d just stepped off a Victoria’s Secret fashion runway show. “She was just missing the glitter and the wings!” she reported enviously.

And as girls do at parties, they got to talking while silently sizing each other up. (“Su-ann has such lovely skin!” Saffy noted with approval.) First, it was about innocuous things like the outfits they were each wearing. Weekend plans were next, and by the seven minute mark, they had moved onto boyfriends.

“I’m here with my boyfriend,” said Su-Ann. “He and Mary went to university together. Oh! There he is over there talking to that...girl over there.”

Saffy, the world’s foremost expert on the pregnant pause, immediately swivelled her head in the direction of Su-ann’s finger and found herself looking at Amanda talking to a guy she would later describe on Facebook as a fat Borneo monkey.

“How is this world fair?” she posted. “A pretty girl dating someone so fugly!”

In turn, Amanda posted a comment that one shouldn’t judge someone on his looks and that Fat Borneo Monkey was actually quite interesting.

“He is fugly!” Saffy repeated. “No man would ever date a woman who looked like FBM. It’s a man’s world, I tell you!”

Of course, what really killed Saffy was the fact that someone who looked like FBM had actually managed to convince someone so pretty as Su-ann to go out with him. And, in her books, what was even more astonishing was the fact that Amanda had actually found FBM interesting enough to talk to him.

And the underlying rant here was this: if gorgeous girls like Su-ann were dating Neanderthal apes like FBM, what did you have to look like to date the actual good-looking men in this town?

“There’s no hope for me!” she wailed later that night in the cab home. Amanda made soothing but ultimately ineffectual noises. “And there’s more! They just got engaged. They’re getting married next month!”

A silence fell over the cab. After a while, a nagging thought finally managed to get Amanda’s attention. “Uhm,” she began slowly. “She hasn’t invited you to the wedding has she?”

“She’s asked me to be one of the freaking brides-maids!” Saffy screamed out loud, nearly causing the poor uncle taxi-driver to swerve dangerously on the CTE. “Oh. My. God. First of all, how do you fall in love with someone who looks like that? And secondly, why would you ask someone you just met to be a bridesmaid? Don’t you have any friends? Oh, speaking of which, Amanda,” Saffy added, looking a little guilty in the strobe-light of the street lamps, “uhm, you’re not invited to the wedding.”

Saffy later said that she was so relieved that Amanda hadn’t asked why. “Because if she had,” she told me, “I would have had to lie. But can you imagine that Su-ann was actually jealous Fat Ugly Borneo Monkey was talking to her?”

“That’s what he’s called now?” I asked. “Fat Ugly Borneo Monkey?”

“Well, I think the ‘ugly’ is essential, don’t you? The only problem is that it only makes Su-ann’s engagement to him all that more incomprehensible. God, I’m so depressed.”

Recently, Saffy changed her Facebook profile. In her “Relationship” status, she’s now put “Doomed to be discovered by the smell seeping from under her flat’s door”.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Free for all

My overseas friends are always asking me what I do in my spare time. And they ask this with such serious fascination – a concerned frown creasing their forehead the way one mother might look at another mother if the latter announced that her 15-year old kid was still breast-feeding.

And I usually hesitate, because I’m never quite sure what to say. All my local friends like to joke that there’s nothing to do in Singapore except eat, shop and go to the movies. Well, now they can also go gambling, provided, of course, they can get past the queues of people outside, slowly baking in the hot sun. You’d have thought that they’d also be having sex, but judging by the recent surveys of Singapore’s falling birth rate and abysmal condom sales, apparently, that’s not happening either.

Which brings me back to my original source of embarrassment. I mean, you don’t really want to tell people that all you do on the weekends is eat, shop and watch movies, do you? What kind of an impression will that create in the minds of these impressionable foreigners?

But then, should I lie? Should I tell my American friends that on the weekends, I can be found abseiling down the Marina Bay Sand casino building? Or jet-skiing around Punggol? Which, in turn, gets me depressed because I can’t help but think how much more fun my life would be if I actually did any of these things. Nothing is more sobering than being forced to see your life from the perspective of a big fat lie.

The truth is, I just like to do nothing. Even when I’m meant to be busy. I could never do what Barack Obama does, for instance. All that stress of running a country and then having to make all those long boring speeches. In fact, I would never have run for office in the first place, let alone get out of bed.

But the one thing that I really like to do is to get free things. Now, I realise that some people may object to this on the grounds that this isn’t exactly an activity as such, but I like to think that seeing as the physical act of accepting the free thing requires actual effort, that’s got to count for something.

Recently, my flatmate Saffy returned home from what appeared to be a very successful shopping spree. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing!’ she announced immediately as she dropped what looked like ten Mustafa shopping bags.

‘You’ve been shopping. At Mustafa!’

‘Well, yes, I have,’ Saffy admitted, her impressive bosom deflating a little. ‘But that’s not all. I am the proud owner of a Mustafa loyalty card! Look!’ she said waving the little laminated card in my direction.

I sat up with interest. ‘What does it do?’ I asked.

‘I have no clue,’ Saffy replied. ‘I was just buying some toothpaste and shampoo and the girl at the counter asked me if I wanted to be a member, so I said yes.’

‘Did she say what the benefits are?’

‘She didn’t know either. She said the programme wasn’t going to launch for another couple of months.’

I eyed all the bags on the floor and wondered aloud how much toothpaste and shampoo Saffy had bought.

'Well, that’s the thing. I got so excited about my new card that I figured I might as well get more things while I was there.’

‘You get points with this card?’

‘I have no idea!’ Saffy repeated. ‘The girl didn’t know either, but we both figured it couldn’t hurt to start racking up the Mustafa dollars. Otherwise, what’s the point of a loyalty card?’

‘That’s what they’re called? Mustafa dollars?’

‘No, it’s what I’m calling them. They better be worth something,’ Saffy threatened, ‘otherwise I’ve just bought a lot of flavoured condoms for no reason!’

So here’s the thing. It’s mindless consumer behaviour like this that makes me love this country. People just willy-nilly giving away their private NRIC number to complete strangers in the vague hope that the little piece of plastic they’re given in exchange might one day get them something. Like a packet of sweets, or maybe a desk calendar, if they’re lucky.

When she heard about Saffy’s retail adventure in Little India, Amanda announced that it was women like Saffy that were causing the country’s falling birth rate. Saffy said privately that this was really rich coming from someone who had just dropped $13,000 on a stupid handbag that didn’t even have a zip. And, of course, first thing tomorrow, I’m heading out to Mustafa to get my card.