[Story] Third Space

Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.

The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!

First came the white tents.

People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.

Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.

Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.

She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.

From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.

But these white tents.

From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.

But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.

Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.

***

First comes the aperitif.

The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.

“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.

“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”

“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”

It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.

He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”

His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”

As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.

“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”

His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”

They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.

A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.

“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.

A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.

GO HOME.

STAY AWAY.

GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.

He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?

Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out.

***

First comes the self.

He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.

The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.

When will they give him another mask?

He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.

The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.

“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.

“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”

“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”

“We’ve been asking and asking—”

He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—

The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.

He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.

“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.

He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.

When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.

No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.

But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?

He has to protect himself.

All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.

He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:

“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”

He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”

He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”

Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.

What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.

He will not accept it.

His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.

***

First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.

Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.

They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.

On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.

“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”

Another man hushed him.

“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”

“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.

Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.

He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?

When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).

One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.

Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.

The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”

He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.

He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.

Then, the nightmare descended.

One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.

His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.

He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.

He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.

 

[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

[Story] Dog Days Are Over

Author’s Note: Found this buried in my drafts from 2018. Just a random little story on the impressionistic, surreal flicker of a college encounter between a girl and a boy (and dogs). 

Raining Dogs

She met him in the dorm room with a slanted ceiling. It was a mixer of about fifty people, with a makeshift bar (a scruffy-looking bookshelf colonized by dark liquor swimming in bottles), the washed-out glow from two sentry-like lamps, a lack of ventilation that put to sleep the dogs in her mind (a quiet bubble in a sea of noise), and the bright red cups swirling on sweaty hands like neon atoms in the dark.

He had a forgettable but good-looking face and an open, sudden smile. She had glanced up and there he was, a flash of white teeth and unfamiliar eyes.

It felt like it could be the beginning of the Play, which she didn’t know if she wanted to be a part of. Because that was only one day after she thought she had inspected the dust particles gathering on the stage. It felt impossible that any performance would ever start. She didn’t dare to read the opening lines of a new script that she might have to once more figure out. She walked away, cloaked in the memories of gray carpets of non-beginnings, unlived possibilities, and almost-heartbreaks. Her mind yelped, but she told it: Shh.

*

When she saw his name on her phone the next morning, everything was too quiet. In the stillness, she tried to remember how he looked like. She could only draw up hollows and shadows and teeth and eyes, an outline of a feeling, something close to being airborne. The dimness had rubbed his person of the valleys and ridges.

Her fingers tap-danced across the screen. Then the phone made a tiny arc through the air, landing on the cushions. The paws in her mind lifted by a whisker and with the pull of gravity, fell.

**

She didn’t expect a conversation to develop out of that encounter under the slanted ceiling. But, she found herself replying, enveloped in the rhythm of what could be an opening act.

When she made her way towards the T station, three days after the first phone message, she almost thought she might not recognize him in the glaring expanse of broad daylight.

He was wearing a white shirt, and he watched her as she came to him.

He wanted to say something, but she — more alive, less withdrawn than in the dorm-room light, was now full of sharp edges and splatters of colors — started talking. No scripts, no audience, just two people, almost strangers, barely friends, drawing an emotional asymptote on an unknown plane.

So he listened, the boy inside him first raising an eyebrow and, as the night went on, her animated words were punctuated by an undeniable pounding in his ears, like the sound of small palms fervently clapping in an empty auditorium. As she talked, he was nodding, and slipping, and tumbling down into a hole, gaping open. It was exhilarating.

***

She said goodbye to him by a bookstore.

I talk too much, she said, almost helplessly. The And Yet hung in the air between them, like subtitles. Anecdotes poured out, so did the crinkled, dog-eared details she thought she had long forgotten, drab, insipid, self-indulgent, confessional, strange, inconsequential bits and pieces of the arc of her life. And yet he listened. And yet she felt listened to.

Plans were made, a stroke here, penciling a vector there, in the blank space and black lines, a promise of something. And then a lull.

She felt the brief touch of his hands on her lower back. The enfolding of arms. The barest of hugs.

As she walked back to her dorm, she tilted her head to grasp the cacophony of barks in her head. Oh, shut up, she said, but couldn’t stop smiling. Shut up. Shut up.

****

He didn’t text her for five days.

The dogs were wild. They blanketed everything.

When she saw his name on her phone after the gap, everything was too loud.

*****

They stood close to each other like the first time, sat across from each other like the second, but she had the sense that everything was going terribly wrong. Somewhere between the crunched up movie ticket stub in her fist and the silences in the uber, between his distracted eyes and her reluctance to say anything, the tenor of this evening had changed.

They had not seen each other for merely a week, but it keenly felt like a meeting between two strangers. Strangers who knew too much about one another.

Tentatively, they tried to venture into unexplored terrains — Florence, childhoods, pasta — but each time they sought to erect a pole to build anew the tent that could house two souls, the earth turned to quicksand. So they kept scrambling, exerting force at All The Wrong Things, squinting in concentration, not meeting each others’ eyes, building a set like single-minded craftsmen, grasping at their shambling dignity and splintered ends.

The And Yet that had wafted over from the effulgent night a week ago, brimming over with everything said and yet so much unsaid, now crumbled into dust like moth wings between calloused fingers. She stared at him, and he stared at her.

He walked her back to her dorm. He responded to all her questions. He offered to pay for dinner. She laughed at all his jokes. She asked him one question after another. She allowed herself to be hugged. And Yet. And Yet. And Yet.

As she stood on the elevator, alone and watching the blinking lights move up each floor with a steady tick and a lurch, she felt she was leaving him on the ground as she went up higher and higher, back into a life without performance. All the memories of the three encounters were receding in the distance, he was becoming a speck, and the dogs nuzzled her solemn ego, her cool heart, her shredded script, and they were respectfully quiet in her mind in its moment of incredible stillness and clarity.

******

She learns two new lessons about gaps:

Lesson Number One:
There is a gap between the contours of Ideal Type and someone you can actually fall in love with. 

And
Lesson Number Two:
There is a gap between being in Love and loving the idea of falling in Love. 

*******

She knows that nothing in life will last. But, she says a little prayer as she lulls the dogs to sleep: to look at a boy and feel the whole world fade. And then she too can fade into old age, into ashes, into oblivion. With a rose in her hair and the dogs sighing in content.

Path in the Forest

[Valentine’s Day Short Story] April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love

Author’s Note: Here’s the first short story I wrote in college. It’s from 2017. I workshopped it in the first creative writing workshop I took at Harvard — thank you to Claire Messud and everyone else who gave me their precious feedback. The writing might be kitschy at parts and the style is also rather different from how I write now. But, here’s a story for those yearning for love and also those who are happily in love. Happy Valentine’s Day! x

All illustrations below are by a talented Vietnamese artist I came across on Pinterest tonight, Xuan Loc Xuan, whose artworks somehow tie in astonishingly, effortlessly with the lives of three women. 

Parrot

The bar is closed. Sometime between darkness and dawn. Kento sits behind the counter, surrounded by pyramids of bottles from floor to ceiling and an assembly of shimmering glass. His fingers, bathed in the dusky retro lighting from the lanterns overhead, drums on the mahogany. This is his crystal vestibule. But, right now, his fingers look like they are rubbed with faint streaks of blood. He is almost afraid to touch the book before him. What if he sullies it?

He unbuttons his vest, rubs his hands, and noiselessly mixes the cocktail that gave him his first sip of fame; it has been a while since he last made the Taiko for himself—It’s her favorite drink here, he thinks, as he downs it in a gulp. When his tongue swipes against the residuum of bitter matcha powder on the roof of his mouth, he wonders if this is why she drinks it so religiously. It has been exactly four years and eight months, he thinks, since she first walked in. Wearing sunglasses past midnight. Looking like a lost tori. That night, she sat there in silence staring at the Taiko she ordered. He alone saw the drops that trickled down from under her metal shades into the green swirl. He said nothing.

She came back the next week, and then, the week after. It took him a while to realize that she wasn’t frigidly aloof like those other moneyed Japanese women who frequented the bar. She was just painfully awkward. It took him even longer to realize that she was, in fact, a writer—her unsmiling photo on the back covers, hesitantly staring into readers’ souls from the bestselling racks. Her most recent novel published last year was even getting adapted into a film starring Ume Yuji.

Just yesterday, she asked him, “What is the Taiko to you, Kento-san?”

“Taiko? It’s love. I’m not sure if you’ve fallen in love before, Yuri-chan, but it’s everything. Bitter, sour, sweet, and a burning feeling that then dulls into solitude.”

Her eyes flew to his hands before looking down. A quiet moment passed between them. Then, she took out a book from her handbag. “This book to me is like the Taiko to you. It’s my gift. I hope you read it,” she said. She left without ordering anything.

Now, the Taiko has given him courage and awakened a long-dormant thought. Can it be?

He holds the book, feeling its smooth spine. His curved knuckles rest against the hard wood. April is scrawled across the light brown cover, which has printed creases. It looks like a piece of cardboard, he thinks.

He flips open the cover, his index finger briefly touching her printed name, and begins.

***

on a train

— March 31, 2013 —

She couldn’t help staring at him. She didn’t expect to see him again. An anorexic girl sat a few feet away, giving her the side-eye every so often; on the other end, a tiny kimono-clad grandma with a silver bun primly perched on a seat, orange Daiei grocery bags pooling around her sandaled, flaccid feet; and, sprawled across four seats, two high school boys with brilliantly bleached hair who, considering the hour, must have skipped school. While her usual rush-hour mornings were spent on trains brimming over with men and women in monochrome suits, this was a sparsely occupied carriage with specks of personality.

And there he was: a tousled-haired young man slouching against the white train door—of a small build, but lean instead of stocky. His dark eyes looked like they had been mascaraed—framed by very, very long lashes, she decided—below gently arched brows, resting slightly far apart above a roundish nose. There was a shadow on his left cheek, which turned out to be a dimple on second look. He wore a long-sleeve navy and white striped shirt, a ticket stub sticking out of the cotton pocket on his left chest. He didn’t look too poorly-shaven for a homeless boy. Perhaps, he lied that day?

She wondered how others saw him, a face constructed in delicate strokes, maybe soft and unthreatening, an underlying glint of narcissism in every curve and every line. He knew he was attractive. If so, she did not see him the way they did. He was to her violently tantalizing, appearing out of nowhere each time, searing her sensibilities. Her lips parted a little at the thought of walking up to him. She smacked them and tasted the bitterness; ah, the shimmering warm pink of Marc Jacobs Have We Met? 108. She inhaled sharply.

You are already late for work, she reasoned with herself. You told him off that day, why change your mind? You rarely change your mind. But, she could already feel the gears in her mind eagerly reverting their course. Let them watch.

His eyes darted down from inspecting the ceiling to meet hers. It was a disinterested glance. Bored, almost goading. He flicked his gaze away after a few seconds too long. She wasn’t sure if those seconds held in them any gleam of recognition, but she would know in a moment.

He looked back at her as her stiletto heels clicked across the carriage. She smoothed down her pencil skirt, wiping the sweat that gathered on her palms since she saw him.

“Hi, I’m Etsuko-chan,” she spoke quickly, before this spurt of crazy courage ran out.

“I remember you. But I don’t need a lady friend.”

At work, no intern around his age would have dared to treat her this way. But, right now, this didn’t bother her at all. The words tore out of her rouged lips awkwardly: “I’ve changed my mind.” She was trembling like a loose leaf, autumn-red.

He looked less wary now, the hard set to his mouth softening like the bowed wet edge of the cardboard in that Tuesday’s downpour. Ever since she had lifted the soaked lids of the cardboard box—a box that read “UNWANTED PET” in a Sharpie scrawl—beside the back entrance to her apartment building three days ago, she had been haunted. Angled towards her widening eyes, his striking face was lit by the dusky glow of the streetlamp. The raindrops slid off his cheeks onto the hollow of his collarbone. That day, he was curled up like an umbrella handle.

This face now seemed almost hopeful.

Taking a deep gulp of air, she continued rapidly, stumbling over words, but the invitation tumbled out before his warming gaze, “Have you been—uh, have you found a place yet? If not… if not, you can stay with me.”

“Why?” The question trailed out before them both. He uttered this one word in wonder.

“I don’t know,” she replied in equal wonder, “I don’t know.”

***

Ume ashore

“Cut!” the director, grinning through his grey stubble, yells in a hoarse voice. He sounds strangely choked up. His bloodshot eyes aren’t the only misty pair in the studio. A round of appreciative applause breaks out amongst the set crew.

Ume’s head hurts. This is a bit too much for her, she knows. Every engaging script is like this. They suck you in and then spit you out, rearranging the configuration your soul. It must be almost midnight.

He withdraws his lips from hers, and bows slightly. “Thank you, senpai. I thought you were really good, as usual, ” he says, eyes crinkling. She smiles, but her involuntary raised hand to her lips betrays the fact that somewhere in the middle of that long, passionate kiss she had completely forgotten that the reel was running. She has been exceedingly careful thus far not to let her budding attraction to him spill over the boundaries of their professional relationship, but now that she is no longer attached it is far too easy to indulge in her attraction and let herself fall.

Her assistant’s head pops up from behind one of the cameras, sending her a wink.

As Ume collapses onto her cushioned chair, she kicks off her heels and massages her sore feet. It feels good to forget for a while, no matter how briefly, the scrutinizing eyes, sympathetic looks, or, worse still, veiled messages from that smug harpy Ayane who must have been praying for her breakup since they competed for the same role two years back. When Ume started dating the heir of the Toshiba Group last year, she thought that she had finally found the right man—he might have been balding, but he certainly could be considered good-looking for a wealthy guy. Here was a man who was finally as successful as she was, if not more. Even the newspapers thought so, deeming them the power couple of the entertainment world. She must have been congratulated at least a thousand times. Yet, their perfect match began unraveling once Ume started filming April this year against his objections and the bald pig in turn got caught with some unknown model in the tabloids within a month of her strict filming schedule. What a joke.

Since breaking up publicly two weeks ago, Ume has been trying to figure out why she had felt the strangest tide of relief wash over her when she told Mr. Toshiba, “Let’s end this.” And then, there’s the tricky matter of her feeling a little too much attraction for her younger costar on set. At the first script reading in January, she had taken one look into his gentle eyes, single lidded, almond-shaped and slightly drooping, the white of his eye like fish belly, and felt the tension from her fights with Mr. Toshiba caressed away by softly lapping waves. She liked him immediately then. He may be seven years younger, but there is an almost Buddhist serendipity to his quiet demeanor. Being around him makes her feel light. Yet, the outside world will chew them up if she does anything about her attraction; she can already imagine the headlines in bold font: “Ume Yuji Dating a Toshishita after Losing Toshiba Heir”.

Feigning nonchalance, she turns slowly to glance at him, sitting a few feet away and diligently annotating his script. He seems to sense her gaze, suddenly looking up. Instead of averting her gaze as she usually does, this time she holds his eye. She catches the mild surprise on his face. He arches a brow, and makes a move as if to get up. It breaks the spell and she looks away instantly. What is she thinking being so forward?

Is it the script? The narrative is doing weird things to her. She has never thought about dating a younger man before reading the script and the novel of the same name that it is based on. April has a resounding sense of loneliness that resonated with her even while she was still dating that Toshiba heir. The novel’s last sentence encapsulated what she yearns to feel but has never felt despite dating several men:

Many years later, as she stepped onto the train, Etsuko would always remember that last day of March when she looked into the eyes of solitude and found another, arriving again and again onto the shores of a shared loneliness that can only be love.

Perhaps, Ume is, as much as she is unwilling to acknowledge it, lonely like Etsuko.

Despite how utterly bizarre April is as a love story, Ume has never felt this close to a character before. Her character, Etsuko, is a beautiful and successful twenty-seven-year-old woman. Yet, Etsuko is also broken in some way, always wearing a mask of control that everyone expects of a Todai grad; this nags at Ume the more scenes they shot. After a string of failed relationships with men who are inevitably intimidated by her intelligence and accomplishments, Etsuko adopts a homeless twenty-year-old young man like a pet, settles into what most would definitely consider a taboo pet and owner relationship, discovers genuine companionship and even the possibility of love, but one day finds him missing from home. Everyone tells her that they have never seen a young man with her. Etsuko checks the CCTV tape of her apartment building to try to find out when he left, but realizes as she goes further back that no such person existed in all these months. As she wanders out, Etsuko sees the same cardboard box labeled with “UNWANTED PET” again, opens it to see a cavalier puppy staring back at her, and smiles. What a great story. Ume knew without a shred of doubt that she was going to take up the role the moment she closed the book covers.

Yet, during the January script reading, the director had blithely announced, “Look at the powerful ending! We have a wonderful film in our hands about feminism and about finding oneself, which has been very popular since Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love. We might have a good run at the box office.”

She had immediately protested then before the round table, “Kubota-san, I don’t see how that can be the case. I read the book and it’s honestly all about solitude to me. I wonder if the writer-sama might be here to share?”

The writer, Yuri Yoshizawa, had not been there and never did come to the set at any point in the filming. After a month and a half on set, Ume has all but confirmed that the mysterious Yuri Yoshizawa is a recluse, but that is beside the point. Even if Yoshizawa-san were at the script reading to endorse the director’s interpretation, Ume would have still refused to concede that this is what the story is all about.

In that glass-paneled room, crowded with the primary cast and the director, assistant-directors, and assistants of assistants, Ume had asked, “Is Etsuko schizophrenic?” But the director had declared, “No, no, making Hisao up in her head is just a coping mechanism! At last, our dear Etsuko-chan realizes that she needs no man. That’s more important, that’s way more important. We want to leave it open-ended for the audience.” If Ume were Etsuko, she would have wept bitterly when she opened the box only to see a dog. She knows what it’s like to want to fall in love so badly with someone who will love you unconditionally in return. It’s a yearning for someone to share in your loneliness, a yearning that can overcome pride, societal conventions, and render all the petty checklists you have inconsequential. It seems to her that April is a lonely woman’s plea for love. She feels herself echoing this plea wordlessly, with every laden line that she acts from the script. If she doesn’t do something, she might go crazy like Etsuko.

“Hey, Ume-chan,” a voice sounds from above her. Her costar has made his way over to her chair and now looms over her.

She looks up at him searchingly, curiously. So this is how she falls: despite every rational fiber in her body telling her how unwise it is, despite how she knows even if he says yes their relationship will not be fondly looked upon, she is about to exhilaratingly, unwaveringly throw herself onto the path that Etsuko wanted so badly to tread upon.

“Ume-chan? Are you okay? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he draws a deep breath before speaking, droopy eyes unblinking, and crouches down to her eye level.

She knows her mind is made up in that moment. She inches her face towards him, places a finger on his moving lips, and whispers, “I have something to tell you too.”

“Hmm?”

“I want to ask you out on a date,” she says to him. A pause and then, her bold red lips, still slightly smudged from the prior scene, open and close: “Thoughts?”

As she watches his eyes lit up, Ume finally thinks she can grasp that feeling of arrival that Etsuko mentioned, that marvelous feeling of stepping ashore when your feet expects watery depths but instead finds an assuring foothold of solid earth.

***

April

Yuri gets off at the Yushima station when it’s dark. Outside, there are the few usual men drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes on the curb. She drags her luggage down the steps leading to her favorite bar with some effort. One of the men—half-drunk and pretending not to be—sways to his feet with an outstretched hand and yells slowly, “Blind obasan, d-o y-o-u n-e-e-d h-e-l-p?” By then, she is outside the basement entrance, but she would not have dared to answer anyway. She pushes her sunglasses further up her nose bridge before entering.

Her eyes make out the inside with accustomed ease. There are the same few Mesdames surveying the bar like hawks; they must have been beautiful once, with subtle, artful touches to their eyes and lips and cheeks that remind people constantly of that fact. Poaching rich men? she thinks to herself. She cocks her head as Kento appears behind the bar. The Mesdames’s alert faces melt into what might even be a smile when he slides the drinks to them.

She looks away. Beside the Mesdames sits a lone foreigner—male, in his mid-forties, and white. Definitely American, she knows this from his ill-fitting San Diego Zoo t-shirt inside a boxy blazer and the bowl of fries set before his Budweiser. Next to him is a young couple, too busy making out to drink their glinting Golden Daiquiri originals. And in a dim-lit alcove towards the side of the bar, huddles a group of adults—some sort of bonding gathering after work, probably—slurring “Kanpai!” amid bottles of Black and White, ties and glasses askew.

Kento, who she is here to see, wears a white slim fit tuxedo. His black hair, streaked with silver, is slicked back as usual, adding some color to his outfit, alongside a maroon red tie. He is shaking up a drink, as though cupping a heart in his weathered hands, when she pulls to a stop before him.

“Yuri-chan,” Kento says when he sees her, “you haven’t been here in three weeks.”

She can already feel her body trembling. “Oh,” she manages a reply, her voice humbled, “you’ve noticed.”

“And you are wearing sunglasses again. Like you did on the first day you arrived.” He pauses and then adds quietly, “I notice everything about you.”

Before Kento had opened his mouth, she was positively certain that he would have been taken aback by her book. Yet, here he is telling her that he remembers the first day she came to this bar.

She remembers it too. That night when she first met Kento was also the day her closest friend got married. At the dazzling wedding banquet, Yuri had looked around and felt then as though time had solely left her behind when it was busy transforming every woman she knew from girls to girlfriends to mothers. On the train back home, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window—an expressionless, unremarkable face lit up by the bluish phone screen, blurring with the rolling dark hills that receded into nothingness—and had the strong impulse to be anywhere other than on this train heading back to her empty apartment. She got off at the next station. When she found this bar after a quick Internet search, she had already begun regretting her rash decision. That night, the bar was crowded with a big group of raucous revelers that did nothing to drown her loneliness. She felt lonelier than ever. It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.

“Oh really?” she asks hesitantly, “Did you read April?”

“I did.”

“Then, do you know why I wrote that Etsuko and Hisao met on 31 March?”

Before he can answer, the American man gestures at Kento, taking him away from Yuri’s end of the bar, and requests for a Taiko in a butchered pronunciation. As she watches Kento make the drink, she feels her eyes moisten—fortunately hidden by her sunglasses. Kento is like an artist condensing the human experience into a glass: a few drops of rice wine, some green tea liquor, a spray of matcha powder, ice clinks and then, a sudachi citrus slice sinks into the shades of green, before finally a gold leaf rests with a sigh at the top.

In the past three weeks of self-imposed exile from the bar, Yuri had realized acutely for the first time how intolerable her suburban apartment was. How she had used to spend all her time within those walls for years was now unfathomable. Totoro her pet parrot, who was trained to squawk “I love you” passionately in twenty-four languages, no longer entertained. There were nights when the ceiling seemed to be descending on her and she got to as far as the train station. But, the thought of Kento having read her book and disliking it—disliking her—kept her away from the city. She returned to her dull apartment in Setagaya-ku where even Totoro did not bother to talk to her. In the silence, she allowed her fears to take root and grow.

Kento pushes one of the two glasses towards the waiting American. The other Taiko he places gently before her.

He says, “It’s because we met on March 31st in 2013. Tell me if I’m right.”

Yuri takes off her sunglasses, eyes still fairly red and eye circles a garish greenish-black from weeks of insomnia, and stares at Kento.

“We are also seven years apart in age,” he continues, looking at her so closely that he seems to see into her and past her at Etsuko.

He says, “And I am also as lonely as you are.”

Yuri knows she is crying but she finally doesn’t care.

“So, Yuri-chan, will you accept this from me?” he asks, cupping the Taiko in two hands, sliding it slowly but steadily across the mahogany countertop at where the wooden edge meets her heart.

She remembers the plot that stretched back four years, eight months and three weeks, on the first day of April when she emerged from the bar into a kinder, more hopeful world and felt the wet sunlight on her face; when she locked herself in a dark apartment to write another woman’s life and her own intertwined, wondering if it could say what she would never tell him to his face; when she ventured into the city once a week on a fifty-seven-minute commute past rolling hills to observe another’s solitude, murmuring a soft prayer each time that perhaps he would one day consider sharing it with her. She feels a heaviness as if she had just awakened from a years-old slumber with unspoken words, imagined moments, and fully-written sentences in her body. She finally arrives ashore.

Ashore

In the mood for love:

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

Yuri and kento

[Story] The Plato Act

Author’s Note: Hello loves, I’m currently in the midst of my final papers (two down, one more to go!) — here’s the creative, futuristic piece that I submitted as my final paper yesterday for my History & Literature seminar on Speculative Fictions. The central conceit might seem speculative to some of you, might be eerily familiar to others. What do you think? Happy reading! x

Plato Mind

Utopia by Moe Pike Soe

There will be no end to the troubles of states or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world.

— Plato, The Republic

Our state takes this quote very seriously. We all do. It undergirds our entire system, the ship of our country runs on its steam. No one likes to think that she is a cog in a juggernaut. But. Nearly two centuries ago, Benedict Anderson called a nation an imagined political community — ours is an imagined community that can still command emotional legitimacy when most others are erratically unraveling and becoming unimagined even as I write. Borders are falling like dominoes imploded by floods of refugees in the Northern hemisphere. History will call it the Fourth Wave, more potent and ceaseless compared to the ones that came before. We are blessed to still have the chance to be cogs in the enduring edifice of our city-state. And maybe, with time, something more.

The very first to come undone was Germany. The Foreign Ministry sent alerts to all our PAs. My mother didn’t even have to cancel our Christmas trip tickets because Boeing Inc. refunded all tickets after terminating all flights to Germany indefinitely. Other than the fact that my mother was disappointed that her highly sought-after event planning skills were not put to the test, no one else in our family was unhappy. It wasn’t too late for my dad to purchase a 1974 FIFA World Cup tournament simulation seat, which was happening at the Next/Now sports stadium five blocks away — Technically speaking, I’ll still be in West Berlin, he said merrily — and I got the newest iBook in the Penguin x Oculus Collection on the morning of December 25th as a substitute reward for my excellent exam performance last season.

The implosion of borders also happened from within. In Germany, Canada, Italy and the others that have disintegrated, a common thread has been native fundamentalist groups, which formed virtual republics with their own passports, parliamentary systems, crypto institutions, and safe spaces for anti-real mobilizations (Birdy 08/02/2178 12:33PM: Hacking of government data, embezzling funds from financial behemoths, assassinations of Triples… Honestly, the list goes on.). What seeded all these disillusionment was how real-world governments in these democracies have acted, or more specifically chosen to not act, seven years ago when the genetic modification needed for longevity was unlocked. This discovery would triple lifespans — a real breakthrough since former research had only allowed for improved health with an average lifespan of 122 years. Three scientists in China filed the patent; biotech corporations around the globe gobbled it up; luxurious specialized clinics had their grand openings in all the strategic cities. The trend unfurled too fast for legal protocols to match. Most governments couldn’t and didn’t do anything in response. I know how I’m phrasing it right now makes it seem as though it spread like wildfire. News of it certainly did. But, the procedure cost upwards of ten digits, which though not out-of-the-world, made it only accessible to the top 1% or so. Which is still quite a lot of people, arithmetically speaking. But, statistics-wise, to the masses, it was infuriating. To call it anger would be a euphemism.

Consider it carefully. The chance to live for an additional two centuries was not just more years, but also an investment — at the accelerating rate of technological progress, who knew what new discoveries future generations would bring to the table? Being able to undergo the modification might mean being able to live till the moment when immortality is made possible. With such ample time, what achievement wouldn’t be possible? The advantages you could accrue, the lengths to which you could cultivate your mind, nothing will be out of reach. What the sharpest commentators quickly realized and duly propagated on all the massive social networks was the radical inequity that our world was on the cusp of. Mankind has come face to face with an impending bifurcation of its species, with irreversible repercussions (Birdy 13/07/2179 5:19PM: Until the day that time travel is invented, I guess). With time on their side, the Triples will have the chance to evolve into a more intelligent species. The rest of humanity, the have-nots, the 122s, will be standing at the opposite shore, staring at the ever-widening chasm and the ever-receding far bank. An abyss with a single bridge across. The bridge of genes that needs wealth’s keys.

***

Questions? our Logic teacher, Mr. Tan, turns to ask the class, holding his stylus up after scribbling the equation with a flourish.

My hand goes up immediately. Mr. Tan’s eyes crinkle.

Ah, as usual, he says, yes Birdy?

If P1 and P3 must both be on the team, and at most one of G2 and G4 can be on the team, how can the team still include G4?

You’re making a fallacy here, Birdy, he says, eyes glinting, now look here…

Mr. Tan’s PA system records our exchange. My live bar graph for class participation grows, sending a notification to my screen. Though rankings are not disclosed to decrease competition between peers, I am certain that I am in the top bracket for all four Quotients in my class. But, if things go well — at this thought, I murmur a prayer to the incense-cloaked Buddhas my mother so devoutly entreats every time I have an assessment —

I glance at the time. It’s three minutes till 12 noon, which is when they said the results of the national Gifted assessment will be released.

Two minutes later, our form teacher Mdm. Rajaratnam, with hawk-like eyes behind the latest version of Google Glass perching on her button nose, sweeps into the room.

She has only one brown envelope in the crook of her arm. It looks heavy. It has been a while since I’ve seen those — the last time was when I received a constituency award for being in top national percentiles in terms of academic performance. The sight of the envelope sends ripples throughout the class of thirty. Everyone puts down their stylus, looks up from their screens, shifts in their seats. Someone stops in mid-yawn and another person nervously clears his throat.

The two rounds of Gifted Education Program (GEP) assessment held across the nation each year identify the top 1% of students from each cohort with outstanding intelligence scores across all dimensions — analytical, creative, practical, and successful intelligence. The four hundred or so students are placed within special schools, with individualized study options, enrichment programs, top teaching staff, and a stimulating learning environment. But, only one envelope? I feel my hands tremble.

Many things are at stake. 77% of our Members of Parliament come from the GEP — as do 55% of our Ministers. So do 43% of C-suite personnel of local companies that have gone public. By all measures, from the number of admissions to top tertiary organizations (Birdy 22/12/2177 7:04PM: Universities, entrepreneurial fellowships, genius labs, etc.) to income brackets later in life, GEP graduates perform remarkably well. Six months after the emergence of Triples, a new law involving the GEP was passed after a simple majority in Parliament (Birdy 31/05/2181 7:45PM: Ha, unsurprising since our ruling party has had at least a 70% of seats since 1965) and much public discussion — vehement accusations of elitism and tentative support of the bill’s almost audacious prescience in the face of major scientific progress.

The Longevity Meritocracy Act. Also dubbed the Plato Act by many commentators.

Meritocracy is our nation’s main principle of governance and, in a country with a stable three-century-long regime under the same ruling party, meritocracy has had the time to seep into the wet earth, lace the expanse of steel, glass, and granite, weigh on the humidity of the island, and etch itself in the sinews and bones of its people. Here, on our island, opportunities instead of outcomes are equalized. Resource allocation and advancement in society are determined according to individual ability and achievement.

Now, with the Plato Act, the greatest resource of all is made accessible to those with merit, regardless of color, creed, and class. In the tenth and final year of the program, GEP graduates will be tested for their Emotional, Cultural, and Adversity Quotients. From this pool of exceptionally intelligent students, those with top 5% aggregated Quotient scores will be eligible for the genetic modification procedure for longevity under government sponsorship. In exchange, these students will have to serve in politics or public service for six decades after post-tertiary education.

Who wouldn’t? In exchange for six decades, one gets another thirty decades to live. This would ensure that the most deserving individuals by most holistic measures live longer while being contractually obligated to contribute their talents back to society. The best and brightest at the helm. That’s how our country has been run and, now with the new law, will be run for the foreseeable future. This is why our tiny island with few natural resources and limited land space has been able to top the rankings for GDP per capita for centuries. From young, we are told that our nation’s greatest resource is us — the humans populating its waterports, skyscrapers, and resicaves.

I’m staring intently at the brown envelope in Mdm. Rajaratnam’s grip. Our family is comfortably middle-class, but definitely not wealthy enough to afford the longevity genetic modification. Being granted admission to the GEP increases my odds of becoming a Triple exponentially. Along the way, our nation would concentrate the best resources on stimulating my growth and helping me to realize my full intellectual potential.

Only one person in class has received admission into the GEP, Mdm. Rajaratnam says, sounding almost wistful, so I only have one envelope, as you can see.

In a moment that felt like a fizzed-out scene from a faulty Google Glass, I see her lips move but struggle to make out the words. She walks towards me as though through water. Someone pokes me with a stylus. There’s a prick of pain.

She says my name. Three times.

***

Modern-day philosopher king, Eric says.

Who? I ask, knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it from his lips.

Birdy, Birdy, Birdy, he says, in what could almost be a sing-song voice.

I’m trying not to laugh.

He takes a bite of the apple cinnamon scone, chewing thoughtfully.

I’m serious though, he says while pushing the platter full of dainty pastries before me, a look of magnanimity on his face, if Plato could crawl out of his grave and see the world now, he would love your country. The Republic of our times. So would Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson?

The natural aristocracy, he speaks, plucking a lemon macaron from the platter, filled with virtuous talents like you. Jefferson would praise the heavens.

You don’t think it’s unfair?

No, he says, I have no philosophical qualms about the entire system. You are the epitome of the kind of individual that should lead society. Looking at you, I think they got it right.

His voice is solemn but I hear the sincerity. It almost burns me. A gorge rises in my throat.

I hold his gaze for a moment, and then, suddenly afraid that he can read my eyes, look down. I’ve not told anyone else about my burgeoning doubts. Three years ago, I was one of twenty graduates of my GEP cohort eligible to become a Triple. Two years ago, I came to the United States for university education. Now, I’m sitting across the table from a boy called Eric in a café capsule.

According to plan, I am to return to my country after university. Then, before I begin my sixty-year bond, I will undergo the longevity procedure — all expenses paid. What then awaits me is six decades of public service and a possible entry into politics if the party identifies me as a promising candidate. Thereafter, I have another three centuries when I’m free to pursue my passions.

Two problems arise:

  1. In my first semester at university, I enroll in a creative writing class. It feels like stepping into a second skin, like holding the molten heart of the universe in my hands, dripping rivulets of tears onto the screen, like the only thing that can set me afire apart from the years-old instinct to excel.
  2. This American boy who I’m falling in love with, or maybe already am, is a 122.

When I look up again, his face is silhouetted against the timber light.

The capsule hushes as he speaks, the words like an offering — like the one my mother made between me and the Buddhas, like the one he now makes between me and time.

Birdy, he says slowly but emphatically, you have to show the world how human intelligence at its peak can lead a country to sustained prosperity. No artificial intelligence can ever be a philosopher king. Only someone like you. One picked to be groomed from millions. On an island that can enact a system as philosophically brilliant as this. In America, only the rich have the option. The one you have.

His face blurs. I take a shaky breath.

His voice sounds almost desolate in the quiet, ricocheting off the wall of the capsule. I will be a philosopher, he tells me, and you will be a philosopher king. Plato would be proud.

***

Today, I sit in the room I grew up in, on the fortieth floor, the sunlight glazing the curtains. Heat on the glass, chilly air within.

I’m writing this on the first day after the procedure. Three and a half centuries is a long time. I don’t know if I will still be the same ‘I’ then. Of course, the whole thing is, once you step onto this path, you are never quite the same human, you are some new individual that this world has never encountered before. An immigrant in time. So, too, with the rest of humanity. Once they understand, truly understand that the category boundaries of human have weakened, they will never see the world in the same way again. The units of living, the denominations of experiences, and the meaning of death are changed forever.

But, right now, the year is 2177. It’s too early to tell. I will have enough time to figure it out eventually. I think.

Time