Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see. ― James Salter, Light Years
There’s a woman I recognize in Chinatown. She’s seated a few tables in front of me on the thoroughfare of Smith Street and I wonder if the day has gotten the better of me, if the heat has ushered in a mirage of a face from my past–a face at first slightly familiar (it’s been a while), and then it reveals itself in degrees. Then the full of her, our history coming into focus. She fills the frame and I lift my camera and pause; I want to take her picture. We look at each other and look away, doing that thing we’ve all instinctively learned to do–we pretend we don’t exist, that the moment of awkward familiarity rewound and erased itself, and I’m left facing her, refusing to move because this is the only place in the restaurant in which I’m seated where I can get good light.
I know you. We were friends for years until someone I loved excised me from her life and you followed suit. My calls were unreturned, emails unanswered. It was as if you’d vanished although I’d see photographs in you in Sunset Park. You in Berlin. A woman cloaked in shadow followed by a poem from an obscure Chinese poet–I remember you liked your photographs marred, imperfect and your verse vague and neat.
I know you.
Part of me now wishes I would’ve done what I wanted to do: get up from my table and walk over to yours and say hello. It would’ve been a polite hello, a salutation that would’ve been mature, although for a moment I imagine tensions would reverberate. I didn’t want to be that woman who stared at you in the middle of Chinatown, in the middle of Singapore (what are the odds, really?!?!) and pretend I didn’t know you. But that’s exactly what I did, what we did, and I remember asking for my dumplings to go because inhabiting this shared space was unbearable.
The exertions have taken their toll. We feel the surface trembling. Or are we underwater, knocking at the waves overhead, asking for trespass to breathe?
It’s dawn now and I feel the burn in the mouth from my impatience, for feasting on xiao long bao, soup dumplings with a lightly flavored pork broth, from Jing Hua Xiao Chi and pan-fried potstickers at Lan Zhou La Mian. But at the same time I feel the coldness of you. How you glanced at me while talking to your friends who seemed oblivious to our transaction. And I think: this is who you are? Still?
It’s strange to see a place before it unfurls and then be in the middle of its frenzy. I’ve been waking early (if the jetlag won’t be the end of me, these mosquito bites surely will be), and I spent the better part of yesterday morning exploring Singapore by foot. I made my way to Chinatown, which is a direct, 30 minute walk from my hotel, to see tarp-covered stalls, plates piled high and tourists assembling for bad coffee. I took a second breakfast at Tak Po HK, ordering scores of tiny plates ranging in price from $1-$4, and inadvertantly ingesting seafood. I loathe seafood nearly as much as The Vile and Wretched Mushroom, however, the char siew pies were flaky and fresh, and the yam tart tender and spicy. Later, I had durian out of plastic bag, and remembered the delicious fruit and its unpalatable stench.
I began my day with a Chinatown markedly different from how I left it come evening. Funny how time sorts things.
In Little India I was transported back to the markets of Delhi and Jaipur and feeling outnumbered. Always wondering: where are the women? Why are the streets crowded with hulking, chain-smoking men? While my camera captured the few women weaving through the food stalls as they bargained for herbs and purchased jasmine wreaths, but the feeling of being surrounded by men was palpable. Men passing a smoke over a meal in the open eating area. Men forming a line for Western Union that snaked around the block. Men sitting on crates in front of the plentiful jewelry shops that lined the streets. Men saying pardon as they bumped into me. Men politely starring. While I’m speaking not in the pejorative, I should say that I felt my gender. I felt very much a woman amongst men.
I remember feeling faint from only having eaten a bag of almonds for lunch because I wanted to prepare myself for the dumpling binge that would ensue. This was an hour before Chinatown, before a saw you, and I wondered how my day would have played out if I spent another night shocked to get a $12 bill for a small bottle of Perrier (are you kidding me?) at my hotel. But in that moment I was exhausted from walking 12 miles in heat that felt in excess of 100 degrees, and all I wanted were the dumplings.
You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl. / —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
I want to tell you about your face. How hollow it is. How it assumes the shape of laughter but you are neither laughing or a contortionist. You are miming life. I want to tell you about your eyes. How cold they are in this heat–the heat that smokes the insides of rubber bins and cut fish. I want to tell you about the chill I felt when you looked into my eyes, look through them, as if you were desperate to grasp all that lie behind me. In that moment I saw you vacant, a robber-baron (barren) of fertile land.
There was an orchid in The National Orchid Garden that was practically translucent. After photographing it, I had to do a double-take because the flower was luminescent, it glowed cool under the midday sun.
Do you know in Hinduism there are 33 million gods. Straight face. Google it (I did). There is a god for everything, my guide says outside of Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. It’s strange, you know, being in a kind of Utopia. Over five million people (60% are indigenous) live in a city where there crime scarcely exists (I’ve yet to see a police officer), a place, where, after three years you are guaranteed affordable and princely government housing. Where the wait time in a government hospital is 45 minutes and you are guaranteed healthcare. Where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and 95 other faiths cohabit peacefully. Where a mosque is constructed every 3K out of respect for Muslims who need to pray five times a day. Where people only need to worry about providing food for their family because shelter is a non-issue. Where a 4% supercedes the American 1% (36 billionaires and 174K millionaires reside in Singapore). Where everyone is kind and hospitable even if navigating the streets resembles a game of Tetris.
It occurs to me that I’m a tourist in a city that is unusually pristine and oddly near-perfect. And this puts me to thinking about faith and the impossibility of perfection (of which I learned acutely in Spain while admiring the imperfect perfection of Muslim architecture). A trembling always exist, even below a seemingly calm and idyllic surface, and if someone would’ve walked by me in that restaurant in Chinatown, they would’ve thought, Now there’s a woman enjoying her dumplings. There’s a woman smiling. There’s a woman photographing her dumplings. There’s a woman about to take a picture. There’s a woman staring (reverberation). There’s a woman in thought. There’s another woman laughing, all tra la la less. There’s the first woman’s face, falling.
The shift might very well be imperceptible to you had you walked by because what it had occurred took place in a span of five or ten minutes. Yet it marred a seemingly perfect day, albeit for a little while. I couldn’t get her, and my inability (or fear) to walk over to her table, out of my mind until this morning when I realized that feeling that discomfort, that ache and pain for someone I once loved, is me breaking in all the right places.
She didn’t break; she was impenetrable. I broke; I was a river.
Women don’t break. Women break.