Published in Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, 8 May 2016
Shelburne Falls is cold, bright and distant, coated in the sleep of nightfall and the blinking watch of the Great Bear and Little Bear. There are no streetlamps here. Only endless frames of trees and ice leading to a house with an attic and a wraparound porch.
Nora’s beside me in the driver’s seat of a car that belongs to neither of us: a Toyota Camry from ’92 with a colour that flits between silver and invisible. Night makes everything monochrome. Or blue-scale. Right now, Nora’s hair looks blue, strands of night streaming and merging languidly into the velveteen of her coat. She keeps her eyes on the road. The windshield is a black-and-white TV screen. Woods on the left. A drop on the right. The headlights cut through the darkness, searching, anticipating a deer or two, perhaps. But Nora’s grip on the steering wheel is relaxed. For the first time in years, she looks completely in control and she probably doesn’t realise it.
The Camry grinds to a halt, wedging itself between a small slope of ice in front and a tree trunk at the back. The heat from the vent breathes noisily over cracked leather and unspoken thoughts of how Nora’s gloves are too big for my hands, how the tea from the thermos flask has spilt over the drink holder making everything smell like Chai mixed with exhaust. Nora kills the engine and the headlights die out, so the colour of her hair is lost once more to the smoke and mirror of night. She turns to me, her eyes catching the fire of yesterday’s hopes. “We did it!” she beams. Slaps of high-fives and easy laughter like it belongs on the pages of fiction.
The doors open and we slide out, boots over sleet-skin ground. We’re standing in that other world now, the one with the house in the woods in the snow where we’re looking up and gazing at the constellations through the unseen telescope of wonder. I’ve got my camera with me but I don’t take any pictures so I can forget this later and wonder again if all stories are never true.
Only yesterday, I was on a bus from Manhattan listening to Eric Clapton on repeat, hoping I wouldn’t be asleep when we reached Northampton. For thirty dollars a night, I’d been bunking at the Broadway Hotel on 101st Street, where my Brazilian roommate Sergio shared his potato chips and made sure to lock his suitcase every night. I locked mine every night too. No one locks their doors here.
Nora’s carrying a paper bag of apples from the orchard we’d just driven from. Under the light of the porch, she looks like a kid with a treasure chest. We’re still kids. Because at twenty-four, this childhood’s returned. If we’d abandoned it, I forgot when. But it’s returned. It’s returned, and just like how Nora’s summoning me into the house in the woods in the heart of an unreachable place called Shelburne Falls, another city falls away into the tide of this moment’s newness.
New York City this February is a dirt-caked labyrinth, laced with sleet and episodic bouts of snowfall. I’m waiting for Marcus outside the subway station on 110th Street, trying to stay within reach of the Wi-Fi from Barnard College. It’s minus fourteen in Celsius tonight. Any second now, my fingers won’t feel a thing. Marcus is ten minutes late. Irritatingly, he’s not replying.
A light drizzle has covered the asphalt with a silver sheen. Under the artificial moonlight of streetlamps, the city seems to wait for action. But what?
“Oi.” Marcus emerges from the underground, hands tunnelled in the pockets of his trenchcoat like he’s walking out of a movie. “Samuel Lim’s nearby, apparently.”
“Says here on Tinder,” he shrugs. “He’s within a five-hundred-metre radius.”
“Didn’t know he was studying at Columbia too.”
“Yah. He writes for the Wall Street Journal in his spare time. What do you want to eat?”
We end up at Totto Ramen on Hell’s Kitchen, at a table sandwiched between two pairs of after-work confidantes. Four other voices crowded in conversation. All our coats touching.
“Wah lao, why you never ask to stay at my place?” he says behind the steam rising from his bowl. Spiked-haired and gangly, he looks exactly the same as he did in junior college except that he’s wearing an Armani dress shirt.
“What? When I told you I was coming down you didn’t mention I could crash your place!”
“Tsk. The living room is empty!” he says, peppering his bowl with the shaker. “See, lah. Never ask. Can get your hostel to refund not?”
“It’s okay. I like to self-sabotage.”
“If you want to stay longer you can just crash my place,” he offers, reaching across the table to pepper my food too.
The waitress comes over to refill our glasses. Shrouded by the privacy of noise, Marcus razors in on the inevitable. “You haven’t told me about your job plans.”
“I dunno… Probably advertising. I haven’t sent out any applications yet.”
He nods slowly, almost acceptingly. His disappointment is a slap in the face.
“But I’m saving up,” I backpedal. “Maybe I’ll take the plunge, go to London or LA on a tourist visa, look for a job those three months. We’ll see.”
He’s smirking now. It’s easy to stop wondering when the shelf-life for potential is. “You want to crash a law class this week?”
The waitress interrupts with the bill. I’ve got the notes ready but Marcus slips her his card.
I hold out the money towards him. “Eh, what the hell, take it!”
He waves me off and puts on his coat. “You can buy me dessert. Zou ba .”
We leave the ramen house behind and feed into the crowd along Grand Central Station, treading past colonies of trenchcoated hunters, prowlers and Selfie-preeners who live for the Imminent. We’re all the same. Syncing with each other’s walking speeds, driven by an inexplicable sense of urgency. What are we late for?
Marcus is eating from the tub of banana pudding I’ve bought him, careful not to spill any of it down his coat as we round a corner. He’s got a confidence to his gait. Every step steels a resolve to leave his shadow behind. “Have you been up the Empire State Building?” he asks, spinning the plastic spoon between his palms. “It’s the prettiest building in NYC.”
“Really? I prefer the Chrysler Building.”
He gives me a look. “You’re weird.” Then he laughs and marches ahead. “New York….!” he screams. “Whoooh….!” He glances back at me, beckoning, grinning madly like the world has opened up a giant fairground with carriages of ramen houses on every Ferris wheel.
My first time watching an Off-Broadway show happened because the theatre’s in-house magazine bore a black and white headshot of Edward Norton in the prime of his youth. So I stood in line for a show I knew nothing about, and which didn’t have Ed Norton in it. The headiness of the crowd streaming in—all long coats and wet footprints—seemed to promise something more than the twenty-five-dollar ticket did.
Fifteen minutes passed without the line moving. There was a technical glitch in the booking system, manned by a frazzled-looking blonde.
“This is just bullshit,” raged the voice behind me. It belonged to a large lady in a fur coat and a furrier hat. “The show starts in five minutes!”
The girl behind the counter apologetically signalled for everyone to wait.
“What’re you even good for?” the furred lady bellowed.
Jesus, it’s a play. It’s another castle that you run to, that you critique and intellectualise over because someone you thought had more answers than you did said it was important to do so. Someone who pretended to be smarter than they really were because they were afraid that the insignificance of their opinion would be blown open like the wounds they plaster over with your affirmations—affirmations that validate how you sweat over missing the opening act of somebody else’s imagination, somebody else’s grief and ecstasies and skeletons, because you couldn’t even look yourself in the mirror this morning. You want to live through somebody else’s ninety minutes which you trust—and you better hope to God you trust—could be more important than a second of your life, that’s why you’re wearing an excess of fur and an excess of lip liner and an excess of voice to pretend you could look like Liza Minelli or someone who works with Liza Minelli or the person you thought had more answers than you did. You’re nothing but an image because you’ve lost perspective of every single thing that’s authentic in real life, such as the panic of the girl behind the counter. You’re nothing but an image. You are nothing but a shell encased in fur. What’s the one thing you’re good for? Did you come here so you could set the building ablaze with pain so everyone can see it and excuse you for your inability to excuse somebody other than yourself because you’re coated in an Ego-ness that’s growing like a tumour which can only be put in false remission by an antidote of communal silence to your voice, a pipe that’s been trained by years of self-flagellation to amplify at a volume never loud enough so you can continue to pretend to be somebody greater than you presently are? You’ve been carrying a theatre around with you—in that fur coat, in that hat, in the way you sigh—hoping that someone would watch and fall in love with the person you no longer are. So at sixty, you’re a culmination of all you’ve ever pretended to be. And you realise now, right before the curtains go up without you, that you can never go back to being the girl behind the counter.
The queue moved. The girl behind the counter handed me my ticket.
“For God’s sake,” snapped the voice behind me. “You’re lucky you still have a job.”
I glanced at my ticket and realised my hands were shaking.
Marcus and I enter the doors of the Jerome Greene Hall to find Samuel Lim standing in the middle of the lobby with a small group of aspiring lawyers. He sees us and excitement lights up all over his face.“Oh my god! I remember you!”
“Yeah, I remember you too!” I shake his hand.
“She likes to ‘yolo’,” Marcus lies cheerfully. “She flies over to New York to find me whenever she feels like it.”
“How do you like the city so far? It’s fantastic, right?” Samuel asks, accented by America like he naturally grew into the poster Yuppie he might have hoped to become.
“It’s got a great energy.”
“Yeah, New York is… New York,” Samuel muses. The girl beside him takes his arm and smiles in tandem with him. She’s petite and gamine, with a dark bob and red lipstick. “This is Megan,” he says, holding her umbrella for her. It’s black, like the umbrellas in Turner Classic Movies.
“Hi,” she says in a daylit voice. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
“We were all from the same high school—it’s called a ‘junior college’ in Singapore,” Samuel tells her. As he reaches out to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, his coat sleeve rides up his wrist and grazes the dark face of a silver chronograph.
“Wow, what are the odds that you’re all meeting here now,” Megan politely enthuses, stepping forward to keep her reticence at bay. “Someone’s gotta write this down.”
Samuel throws his head back consciously and laughs. He’s got a smile that could launch a thousand votes. Backlit by the vague glamour of the entrance hall, it’s launching a future that looks so easy and unreal and adult in a way that adulthood is imagined through the eyes of a teenager in the late nineties. Straight out of a David E. Kelley series, a couple of decades too late. The future’s already here—and it’s an old TV show. Back when Samuel used to stand on the podium every morning to lead a pledge no one gave a shit about, did he dream he’d be here—about to step out for dinner with a beautiful girl and their nucleus of compelling friends on a winter’s night so fraught with premature nostalgia it makes us all grateful for the luxury of missing home? If the future isn’t set in stone, it sure as hell looks written in really dark pencil.
I should have left before the show started. It wasn’t as if I was in the mood for a Greek tragedy. At least, that was what the set looked like: the stage had been transformed into a cave lined with stalactites and billowing fabric tracing across the ceiling like a sinking cloud.
The audience milled about in mini-alliances as they found their seats. Whispers, handshakes, reverent smiles. Quiet now, ladies and gentlemen.
The house lights dimmed and a hush fell over everyone.
A young black woman in a blue tunic glided in. Her opening line was a laugh that was at once gentle and cold, erasing all words and voices that would come after hers.
I tried to pay attention but the jetlag was setting in. The elderly couple beside me sat up a little straighter to watch. They were holding hands—the centre of the world clasped tightly in the cave of a hundred-and-fifty-seat Jewel Box.
The actress with the dulcet voice spoke suddenly:
“There’s a devil lurking somewhere.”
In which details?
Intermission came. I left.
Marcus and I are alone in the foyer now. Our paper coffee cups sit empty on the table, refilled by the glare of the ceiling lights. It’s all oddly solemn.
“Do you think I’ve changed?” he asks quietly.
“You’re mostly the same. Just that, you’re not as… Well, you don’t trust—”
“I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve anymore, right?” he interrupts.
“Yeah. You’re not as trusting of people as you used to be. But that’s probably a good thing, you know? It’s self-protection.” No, it isn’t. Even he doesn’t believe that. “Do you think I’ve changed?”
“I think you got more gung-ho. You’re here.”
“That’s not exactly gung-ho. Nora’s gung-ho. She’s living in this rural town near Amherst. I’m going up there to visit her.”
“Nora?” he asks in surprise. “What’s she doing there? I haven’t seen her since A-Levels. She just disappeared, man.”
“I think she’s damn brave.”
Marcus keeps his arms folded tightly across himself, looks out the glass where Samuel and the little group have receded far out into the luminous cold in search of new memories that await them. For a precious moment, he looks like a seventeen-year-old boy again, thrown into a setting he’s still trying to comprehend. “You know what’s weird?” he says wistfully. “When I first saw Samuel at Columbia, I thought we would have become closer friends. Shows you can’t predict anything. People get brave at different points. It’s not our time yet.”
We walk back to the subway station on 110th Street where he hands me the Magnolia tub. It’s still three-quarters full. “Nah. It can last you for breakfast.”
I take the tub. “Thanks for dinner, yo.”
The train arrives and Marcus gives me a brotherly hug. “’Kay. Message me.”
I step inside the carriage as the doors close and the rest of the world is locked out. Marcus disappears with the speeding blur.
I check my phone: it’s close to midnight.
I fled down the stairs, hoping to outrun the rest of the audience who had begun to spill out into the open bar for a fifteen-minute wine break. If enough people congregated in a restricted space, culture would contaminate. Tearing past the ushers, past the magazine stand, past Ed Norton’s outdated face, I reached the front-of-house where the girl behind the counter was now reading a book—a glimpse of its title: An Actor Prepares. All of a sudden, I was paralysed with a monstrous fear that she was going to stop me from leaving. She glanced up—Too late!—and our eyes locked. I felt the charge of her nervousness—an intensity of a magnitude so equal to mine it shocked us both. I stumbled out the door, never wanting to remember how she looked like, or what her gaze felt like, or if the next thing she did was to hide the book beneath the counter.
Night had caught itself onto the surfaces of steel and glass, sleeping with the streets in a courtship of streetlamp yellows and headlight reds, turning everything into the most deceptively photogenic jungle. A devil lurked round every corner, on every street. Don’t turn, don’t turn. Faces with blank stares, footsteps hurrying nowhere. Cars. Windows. Cold. Where the hell do you think you’re going?
I kept walking straight till I reached the edge of Battery Park. On the water, hunks of ice drifted sleepily down the horizon. Maybe that was where the screen ended; if we sailed all the way to the end and shot open the sky, we might come face to face with a projector.
In the distance, the Statue of Liberty glimmered faintly behind the fog. There was a time when it would have meant something. I would have been moved by it. I would have been riveted.
But there I stood, gazing at the outline of everything on Liberty Island for the first time, feeling absolutely nothing.
It’s 1 a.m. Safe in my room at the Broadway Hotel, I tune in to the soundtrack of routine: night owl traffic outside, the rustle of a potato chip packet, my roommate towelling his hair dry. On my laptop screen, open tabs of job portal sites keep me anxiously awake: 100 Best Companies To Work For. NUS TalentConnect. JobsinZurich.
The packet of Ruffles floats up beside me. I glance down the bunk. Sergio’s eyes are huge and earnest. “Mmh!” he says, mouth full, and shoves the packet in front of my face. “You leave tomorrow?”
“Yeah, too cold.”
He happily shows me an Instagram-ed picture of Mallorca. “Perfect,” he declares.
I’m seated on an air bed watching Nora arranging the apples on the kitchen counter. I would think she’s lived here her whole life if not for the shelves of books on green juicing and meditation bordering the living room. Books written by names that end with a comma and ‘MD’. It’s as if a group of transcendental hippies congregated someplace and decided to get degrees in developmental psychology. Nora’s housesitting for a pair of psychotherapists who are riding out winter in Florida. They smile out of black and white pictures lovingly framed along the walls. A wedding. Thanksgiving. A young woman’s graduation. I find myself wishing I was their kid.
Nora’s taking out a sewing kit and a half-knitted moccasin she’s been working on. She’s been into the more tactile kinds of art-making recently. Paper kimonos and Buddha sculptures made out of clay, that sort of thing. We’d spent the earlier part of the day touring the art studio of Hampshire College where she’d laboured her student nights making Japanese paper and charcoal studies. Empty desks with brush holders and yarn and bottles of paint and oil. Gender-neutral bathrooms with white doors. The silence whenever our footsteps stopped. And on the desk in the corner of the room, that curious watercolour illustration: a giant being painted with a starlit sky and lifted across the shoulders of a dozen men who were carrying roses. There was something spiritual about it. It seemed to introspect itself. I took a picture of it, sacrilegiously. Just as we were leaving, a boy in a red plaid shirt and a woollen hat emerged from the room beside the lockers. He looked at us and smiled. You drew it, didn’t you? I was going to speak, tell him how much I loved the giant being and the stars and his colour of silence, but Nora was already out the door. I should have spoken.
“Hm?” She looks at me, peaceful, still knitting the moccasin, framed by the warmth of the stained-glass lamp and the dozen apples scattered around her.
“I fucked up my entire time at uni.”
Her fingers stop knitting. The air between us grows cold.
“I didn’t do anything at all, you know? Didn’t take any risks, didn’t seek out most opportunities. I should have slept around. Get myself hurt, hurt other people. I didn’t feel like fucking anyone. I lived like I had to prove my future ended. Right from the night I called you at the airport.”
“You called me at the airport?”
“Yeah. Four and a half years ago. When the deadline for accepting the offer passed and I still didn’t get any funding, like I was doing anything right. I was at Terminal Two, I ordered tea like it was the last thing I could afford and sat there angry that maybe I got ripped off by my own dreams. Then I called you.”
Nora’s really quiet. I’ve unnerved her. There should be a box somewhere where people can bury their grief without it being a danger to anybody else.
“I was so entitled then,” I say dismissively, trying to rescue the mood as if mood can be rescued. “I couldn’t be grateful for anything because I wanted so much—”
“What did I say?” Nora interrupts.
“I can’t remember.”
She stares pointedly at me for a moment before breaking into a smile. “Don’t. I bet it was a load of crap.”
Somehow we both crack up. Against the myriad of stained glass stars and the shadows on the wall. Against ourselves. If tonight could be stretched out till the end of our lives, everything could be okay. It could be okay.
She pulls me outside to the balcony where we stumble barefoot over last night’s snow, squealing, giggling like children.
“It’s damn cold!”
Our laughter dies down. Night looms in front of us, moving imperceptibly as the earth spins deeper into the future. We stretch out our hands to feel—touch—the eternity that keeps the sky out of our reach. If we could take a piece of sky, drink it up, would we be filled forever with the stars that could lift us over the shoulders of our histories? It’s so quiet and so bright. We watch silently. Breaths visible, warming nothing. Then I notice: the light never reaches our fingers.
“You didn’t lose anything,” Nora says softly. “That future never could have happened in the first place.”
The flight back from JFK, I watch Patricia Arquette in Boyhood give a lecture on attachment theory. What’s the name she mentions—Bowlby? Four stages. Human survival. Across the aisle from me, a tattooed hippie keeps his reading light on as he pours over a book with Eckhart Tolle’s name printed on it. We’re afflicted with an attachment to meaning, aren’t we? So we can make sense of how, as a plane ascends, thousands of lights erupt over a motionless wave the same time that someone drops his notes on the steps of Butler Library as a ferry docks itself at Battery Park and its captain stays a minute longer to admire the blazing torch of Liberty and disregard, for a pause, everything that falls short of beauty.
I think of Nora and the Camry and the bag of apples. The moment just before we got out of the car, when the air was filled with nothing heavier than the breath of winter. No future. No expectation. Reality hanging blithely onto each infinitesimal shift in movement, each infinitesimal shift in thought. I’m going to forget this when we touch down. When the spaces between the frames of shots begin to widen enough for imagination to start lying, and I won’t remember how the light settled over the porch under the stars. I’ll have to seek it out all over again.
Nora, Nora, my life should have ended there. Right off the cliff beyond the woods where the last thing would have been the view of Shelburne in the winter of its nap, a faraway promise I can never touch, never be disappointed by. Where there was nothing to signal the return to a place with grills and ceiling fans suspended next to fluorescent tubes above laminate tables with plastic containers and the deaf-volume jabs of Cantonese syllables like disjointed animal speech—Why do we need sounds to communicate? Can’t you intuit? You can’t, can you?—that cut through everything spellbound by privacy like the closed piano in the hallway. I believed art was supposed to save us. I really believed that. Did you see that drawing of the giant being made out of stars? It was so fucking beautiful. But the dozen men were pallbearers. They were carrying him like a hearse. And the roses—don’t we bring them to graves so that death can be made beautiful? So that death can be decorated the way cities are decorated by lights and glass and bridges across rivers.
There’s too much light all the time. Even at night.
“You okay?” It’s the hippie across the aisle. He’s offering me a serviette he’s saved from his meal tray. “You should get some sleep. Always works.”
He shrugs a welcome, turns out his reading light. The cabin plunges into darkness. Nothing except the soft rumble of the engine and the sleep-breathing of two hundred other passengers, lost to their dreams in a vessel weighted like a metal balloon above the clouds. In time, morning will circle the window shades and thrust all anxieties into the daylight of logic.
Everything will be okay.
And everything will be okay.
走 吧: Mandarin for “Let’s go."