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Story of the Month: Evelyn Lee

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For our March Story of the Month feature, we have Evelyn Lee and her piece, “Paper Houses”. Evelyn writes as a young Singaporean woman who must reconcile her love for her English boyfriend in a very exclusive Singaporean household. This piece is particularly heart-rending, as Lee’s protagonist must navigate modern love, and familial and cultural expectations.
See the original post by Evelyn here: Paper Houses
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Paper houses

Evelyn Lee

Marina stepped into the house, where everything was spick and span, meticulously maintained by her mother, who had always been a clean freak.

It was a far cry from the musty attic she called home for three months in England, a humble abode shared with the boy she went out with. If Ma knew, she would only be horrified, both at the perpetual mess, and the idea of her precious daughter cohabitating with a 23-year-old college boy, an ang moh to be exact – what Singaporeans liked to call white people.

She had only hauled her luggage through the immaculate living room and into the study, when the sound of the vacuum cleaner started up almost eagerly and filled the entire house, cutting through at least three walls (that was why she picked the innermost room when they moved in, before her younger brother got a say). From the currently bearable decibel level, Marina could tell that Ma was vacuuming the kitchen.

She had told her to get a new vacuum cleaner since she was old enough to find it a terrible distraction from her mathematics sums in primary school. But Ma always said in Mandarin, “There’s no need to get a new one when this is working fine.” Even Brother got irritated at some point, but she must have loved that old grey and dusty vacuum cleaner – loved it enough to lug the giant antique from the East end of Singapore to the West, when they moved here more than a decade ago.

She remembered nothing from the moving, except that her favourite long green caterpillar soft toy from Ikea got lost along the way. “Jurong is a long way from Pasir Ris,” Pa informed her, as if that was somehow supposed to be comforting.

To six-year-old Marina then, Singapore was an impossibly vast place, and the other neighbourhoods like Toa Payoh and Tampines sounded like huge cities. It was only at the age of thirteen, when she first started to take the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains, that she realised it only took one hour to travel from one end of the country to the other, and how Singapore was actually just a city and a country at the same time.

“Dear, can you help me mop the floor?” Ma called from the kitchen. Her voice was still piercing as ever. At least her mother was still in good health, Marina learned to think over the years, and appreciate the little things. But she could hear Pa groan audibly as he was halfway through removing his watch and emptying his pockets on his study table.

“Didn’t we just do that the day before yesterday??” He shouted back. Her parents sure loved to holler. They were still the same. Nothing had changed.

She thought again of the memorable days she had shared with Ethan in England. Their house was a world apart from this, and their world? It could never be further than this life. Home to her was a heap of cushions on the floor encircled by a trail of clothes, dishes often unwashed and piled till it was impossible to use the sink, and then one of them would do the honours. It was not that they were negligent or lazy, but they were simply too busy unwrapping each other’s hearts to pay attention to these trivial details in life. Every minute they had with each other was too precious, for the eventual goodbye loomed incessantly at the corners of their minds.

He had even brought her to meet his mother, who only couldn’t help being skeptical.

“So, when are you returning to Singapore?”

“July,” Marina answered.

“And after that, no more Ethan?” Her laughter was cynical, almost scornful.

Before Marina could reply, Ethan had said quietly but firmly, “We’ll work something out.” There was an intensity in his voice she had never heard before.

Their life together was like a haze, a sweet golden sunset haze like the maple on burnt chocolate pancakes he made her on Sunday afternoons, like the golden feather of a yellow daffodil he slipped into her hair, as they stood looking up at the ruins of a Gothic cathedral in the Yorkshire Wolds.

The memories poured in, sudden torrents that wrought her heart the way the English winter ate into her bones. She remembered everything; she didn’t need melodramatic promises at the airport departure halls in Manchester to know that neither of them would ever forget. The sixteen minutes they stared into each other’s eyes without flinching or speaking, as the midnight train carried them through the cold starless night outside. The ninety-eight minutes they spent walking in the Edinburgh snow in February, turning one cobblestone street after another and passing brightly lit houses with enticing fireplaces. The way they had held onto each other for warmth as she told him about her mother, and why the ukulele was her metaphor for happiness.

And then the night he proposed. 10PM on a summer night by the coast.

 They had grabbed some marshmallows and cider from the store and walked a long way up a steep slope. He was bringing her to his secret place, the place with the best view of the sea. Indeed, it was breathtaking. The bright lights of the seaside casinos and the fairground stalls lined the stretch of sand that now shimmered like a golden rug. And the sea – it was completely tranquil like a silk fabric in shades of pale blue and silver. Strains of the waves somewhere far below reverberated through the atmosphere.

Marina lost herself in all this beauty for a long time, until she looked down and realized that Ethan had already gathered some twigs and dried leaves to start the fire. Tonight was his idea, and although she already knew they were going to build a fire to toast marshmallows, she felt immeasurably touched.

She remembered when they first started going out, she had showed him her favourite film, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, secretly hoping he would know how much it meant to her and why. Two odd and somewhat dysfunctional kids feeling out of place with the rest of the world, losing themselves in imagination and creating a magical world of their own.

At the end of the film he had looked at her and said, “That’s us for sure. We’ll do that someday.”

He now looked up from the fire and smiled, the light of the embers dancing on his flickering face. She wanted to kiss him in that moment. As if on cue, he dropped the twigs and came towards her.

The flames crackled.

Maybe it was the effect of the cider setting in, or the urgency that came from the realisation that their parting was inevitably approaching, an almost lyrical tension filled the air. Time became a sweet blissful blur. She only managed to jump to her senses when she realised they were about to do, with hands reaching under shirts and sweaters.

“We can’t…” She managed a whisper. “Not here.”

He pulled her close and kissed her hair gently. They held each other for a long time, with the darkened horizon and ocean sounds stretching out to eternity on one side, and the simmering white embers on the other.

Later, as they were finishing the remaining cider, the ground got too chilly and he offered to let her sit on him for warmth. She sat, tucked in safely in his arms, as they stared ahead resolutely at the twinkling lights.

Why do you love me?”

What does love mean to you?”

Why me?”

Because you see me so clearly like no one ever did. Like the way I see you.”

It means I want you to be happy more than anything.”

It means your happiness is necessary for mine.”

I don’t know. You think I’m kidding, but I really just knew. I knew when I first saw you. I have never known anything more clearly than this.”

Her thoughts went back to the first time they went out properly, she had jumped at the chance to confirm her skepticism towards him at the start.

“Why did you talk to me in the club that night?” She asked.

“Because you’re beautiful.” He answered.

“Yeah, I knew it. All guys are like that.”

“No I meant, beautiful on the inside out. I don’t know why I knew. I just had to show you what you couldn’t see.”

That had stirred her heart but she didn’t completely believe him, and sank into contemplative silence as they strolled down the beach. The same beach they were now looking at.

“Can I ask you a final question before we leave?” Ethan broke into her reverie. It was almost 1AM.

“Yeah sure.”

He leaned in close. She could feel his lips on her ear. It tickled, and she thought he was trying to be funny. There was a long pause, as if he was deciding what to say. She was about to laugh when –

“Will you marry me?”

A whisper.

Her heart stopped. Then she laughed. She could not believe what she just heard and the only thing she knew how to do was laugh.

“Are you kidding me?” She prodded him with her elbows and slapped his knees.

“I’m serious. I really want to know your answer, Marina.”

Ethan seldom used her name. In fact they never called each other by name. She only needed to turn around and look at his eyes to know he was dead serious, and he had probably never been so serious about anything in his life.

She paused for an equally long time, as if deciding how best to say it, leaned into his ear and said –

Yes.

“Marina!! Why are you standing there at the window? Bring your luggage to your room and unpack your things!” Ma’s voice was a harsh jolt to reality.

“Yes…Ma.”

Reality? She didn’t know what was real anymore. Even before she returned home, even before she went to England for that matter, she had told herself again and again, almost forcefully, that the alternate reality over there was like a dream come true, but could only be a passing chapter. This was where she belonged. This was real life. This was what they called ‘coming back to reality’.

But she lost that conviction after she met Ethan. Nothing was that clear-cut anymore. If her time in England were an ephemeral dream she ‘should be thankful’ to have indulged in, like what her parents countlessly reminded her on endless Skype calls to prepare her for her homecoming, then why did it feel more concrete than this reality, and more real than anything she had ever known?

The stainless steel window grilles kept her from the whizzing world outside that she wasn’t quite ready to face. Was this safety or captivity? She did not know. She only remembered never having seen a window grille in England, or perhaps there was no need for them as people lived in really low houses.

Outside, from the skyscraper perspective in this land of towering residential flats, the sky was murky and grey.

At the moment, Grey was the colour of the future, like the defining metallic testaments of prosperity along the river at Marina Bay, and concrete everyday hues that she had come to identify with the landscape of her urban home, clockwork nation. Grey was in the long snaking suspended MRT railways when she looked out of her sixteenth-floor window, grey was in the slabs of infinite cement on the jungle maze of avenues and highways, the cars and buses like miniscule ants scurrying along in a frenzy, everything like a collective burrow of toy locomotives. And from where she stood, everything seemed irrelevant.

Her bedroom was the worst blow.

Everything was dead still, straight. The postcards and posters she had lined on the walls: immaculately straightened. The old nineteenth-century map of England she had printed off the Internet and pasted beneath the watercolour print of an old Singaporean shop house. And the star of the show: the giant washed-out brown paper, ‘vintage’ posters of Paris splayed out in front of her desk – Moulin Rouge, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, of course. Everything was untouched, like the dusty collection in a forgotten museum.

She still remembered how she felt half a year ago, right before she left to study abroad in England. She had spent two hours carefully curating the pin-ups and aligning them on the once-barren surface of the pastel blue wall.

She was so proud of the end product. It was the wall directly in front of her bed, and it was almost a symbolic mirror of sorts, for she took everything personally, and saw her Self in the postcards she had collected from her first school trip to Scotland, in the wanderlust patterns of globes and suitcases on the scrapbooking papers she had bought, and the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ giant poster with the clichéd red and blue Union Jack background.

All these promising dreams, dreamy postcard places awaiting her, she had thought back then. Especially Paris, which she had dreamed endlessly of visiting, the first place she had heard of, in this distant faraway land called Europe.

She stared at these relics on the wall like a past life.

The Paris posters were particularly disconcerting. They were emblems of the starry-eyed idealistic past self she had cast away like nondescript plasters that were waiting to unveil who she was today, who she had grown to become. That was not her anymore, the nostalgic faded tints of places that did not even exist. Vignette photographs and wistful films like Amélie were only illusions. And for some reason, she had skipped Paris on her backpacking trip around Europe.

That was the first to be torn down. Next was the commercialized mass-produced Union Jack posters, with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan which was actually coined as British propaganda during the Second World War, she had learned over there. Yet everywhere now, all over the world and even in Great Britain itself, in the tourist souvenir shops in the postcard-perfect towns of York or Edinburgh, plastered on everything from ashtrays to tote bags, there it was – now popularized as a glamour icon and nothing else, and no one loved it beyond face value.

She rolled up these large posters and stowed them away temporarily on top of her bookshelf where they could not be seen. She took a long look at remnants on the wall. With the new spaces and gaps created by the removal, she felt strangely fulfilled, replenished, restored. She would have to do the rest tomorrow, Marina thought, as she sank gingerly into the clean and crisp bed sheets and blankets that her mother had smoothed to perfection.

Marina slept through the weekend, only waking up for meals and other mundane routines. Ma prepared all the usual home-cooked dishes – fried bee hoon, yong tau foo, and Marina’s favourite baked salmon with a special honey marinade. Marina looked at her mother’s radiant face and tried to force herself to eat, although she couldn’t stomach a thing.

Everything was a haze. She vaguely registered her parents asking her questions. Not really about her travels, but gritty things like when school was starting, and the insurance claim for that broken luggage wheel, whether she kept the receipts from the drugstore she bought flu medicine from. She nodded, barely having enough energy for anything beyond monosyllables.

“I’m really tired, Pa, Ma, thanks for the lunch. I’m going back to sleep.” She stood up and left the table, but not before noticing her mother’s crestfallen face, strained with worry.

“Let her sleep, dear. She needs to recover from all that jet lag,” she heard Pa’s voice.

“I know, but I am so worried. She doesn’t even talk.”

 Jet lag, Marina thought to herself as she closed her eyes. They think it’s so simple. But I’m not back yet.

I left myself there…let me just sleep and numb myself for a while.

The next time she woke up, it was past 10AM on Monday. Two whole days had just passed in a fog, since last Friday night when she touched down at the airport. Marina changed into a floral dress she got at £10 from a market in London, although she had no intention of going out.

“Marina! You’re going out? Are you feeling better?” Ma’s voice sounded too bright, almost chirpy.

“Yeah…” she answered briefly and filled a glass of water from the distilled water tap at the sink. Since when was tap water not clean enough?

“If you’re free and feeling better, maybe you can unpack your luggage soon so I can wash all your clothes. Don’t leave them inside for too long, they will start to smell.”

“Okay Ma, I know.”

Marina went back to her room and stood there for a while, staring at the black Hush Puppies 30kg luggage on the floor beside her bed.

Open it and get it over and done with. You have to do it sooner or later.

No it will hurt too much now. I can’t do this.

The longer she looked at it, the more the plain black luggage resembled a coffin, a vacuum tightly zipped and clamped shut.

She ripped open the zip with an almost violent force.

Things were all in a mess, and her mind flashed back to what was really just three days ago, but felt like ages past. She and Ethan were grabbing all of her stuff frantically, and cramming them into the luggage. Clothes were just crumpled up and stuffed in every available gap.

They were always doing things last minute, and each time they promised they’d learned their lesson. But even on that last day at Manchester Airport, she almost missed her flight back. They had to announce her name on her intercom. She and Ethan had reached Departures early, and hadn’t imagined that getting through security could be so tedious. She was playing his favourite Coldplay song for him on her ukulele, and singing to him for the last time.

She took out the ukulele from the luggage and leaned it against the wall in the corner of her room.

Next, she started removing the smaller items one by one and laid them out on the floor in a line. Her film camera with an unfinished roll of film. The mug with Monet’s painting of red poppies, that Ethan had got her as a parting gift. They discovered they both loved the artist in a museum in Edinburgh, the first place they travelled to together.

The bundle of train ticket stubs from her Europe train rides. A poem from a good friend she met in her film classes at school. Maps from hostels in Belgium. A short note with the tiny scrawl of an 82-year-old Australian woman backpacking in the Scottish highlands. Her own recycled brown paper journal from Paperchase, filled with sketches of buildings she liked, a few poems she wrote in Venice, and some letters she wrote to Ethan, but never showed him.

And then, wrapped carefully in three scarves and Ethan’s navy blue woolen sweater she had taken back with her, was the glass jar of pebbles she had collected in their time together.

He was the only other person she knew who would pick pebbles over seashells.

Although seashells were delicate and pretty, sometimes even with a natural polish, they were the empty shells of life forms that had ceased to be, and they made him sad.

When Ethan told her this, she couldn’t decide whether it was cynical or compassionate, but felt strangely comforted for a reason she could not name.

They were strolling down the beach in Scarborough. It was half past eight at night, and the lights from the seaside casinos were flashing merry colours.

It was their first date. She had stopped to pick up a pebble, grey, round and smooth like a tiny egg.

They stood there for a long time, talking about seashells and pebbles and life and death, and then suddenly they both stopped. There was a long silence between them. He looked at her with an intense gaze, as though he had just realised something. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her.

Then he asked, “Can I hold your hand?”

She turned away so he wouldn’t catch her smiling.

“You don’t have to ask,” she replied.

He clasped her palm in his, as if wishing to protect and reassure, yet still slightly tentative.

“Like this,” she said, staring ahead, not looking at him as she interlaced her fingers with his.

She could feel his smile without looking at him.

It was then she taught him umchio, his first Singaporean word.

“It means, to feel secretly happy because of someone you like.”

“Well if that’s the case,” he said, “it’s a feeling I’ve known but didn’t have a word for, since the first time I saw you.”

Marina snapped back to the present moment when she heard the sound of marbles bouncing off floor tiles. She had dropped the grey little pebble she was holding, lost in her thoughts.

Then there was a small rock, jagged and chipped, standing out from the rest. It was the only one Ethan had picked up and given to her. It made her heart ache, but she went on and took it out of the jar, feeling the scratch of the rough, coral-like surface of the rock on the skin of her fingers. Specks of orange sediment glinted when she turned it around against the sunlight streaming in from the window.

She remembered they were sitting in a café with dim yellow lighting. There were shelves lined with typewriters and ancient dictionaries. They were sitting at the furthest end of the café, in a snug corner framed with red satin curtains. The strong heady scent of eucalyptus drifted in the air.

Something had gone horribly wrong.

The whole day since morning, she had snapped at every single thing he did. There were moments in Marina’s life she felt as though her mind slipped out of control, overtaken by a fog that replaced her feelings with numbness and robbed her of her ability to think. She always chose to withdraw herself from others. But this time he had seen everything. He had finally seen the worst of her.

The last straw came when she criticized him for the way he ate an apple in the café, not bothering to remove the seeds.

“It seems like you don’t accept me the way I am anymore,” he said quietly.

She stared at him, feeling strangely detached from this moment.

Do I still love him. I don’t know. Why can’t I answer this question.

Her face felt stretched, plastic.

“I don’t know what happened to me, Ethan.”

She continued, “I don’t know if you’ve realised. But I can’t say the three words anymore. I don’t know why.”

Silence.

“I feel like I’ve lost something. I don’t know what it is.”

His eyes were fixed on the teapot.

“What do you think happened to me Ethan?”

“I don’t know Marina, I don’t know. I…”

“Do you want to let me go?”

“I don’t want to. But do you want me to?” He looked up at her, eyes imploring.

“No, I haven’t given up yet.”

She watched something go out of his eyes. A light of some sort.

After a long awkward silence, Marina finally spoke, hating herself on the inside. Why did she have to screw up everything good in her life?

“You are…disappointed.”

“No, it’s more than that,” he said, his voice curt.

On the way back home, he walked briskly ahead of her, only stopping to pick up that jagged orange rock from the sidewalk.

He handed it to her without a word, turned, and continued walking.

The next morning when she woke up, Ethan was lying flat on his back beside her, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Dazed or lost in thought, she did not know.

She shifted away from him suddenly, unable to contain the sudden rush of tears.

“Hey dear…you alright?” He asked. His voice was strained with something carefully held in…Fear? Hurt?

She pushed herself further against the wall so she could get away from him, and broke down in sobs. Sometimes Marina felt she was living in a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from. Neither did she know how everything had begun.

He put his arms around her.

“Go away! You don’t want to see this!” She cried, pushing him away with a violence he had never seen. He almost fell off the bed.

Ethan sat up in shock, but didn’t move for a long time. She had curled herself up like a shell. A seashell.

He waited patiently until her crying subsided. She was drained and now filled with silence.

“Let me…” He started speaking. His voice wavered.

“Please let me hold you until you feel better.”

She didn’t move or speak. He lay down beside her and held her. They stayed like this for a long time.

“Marina! Are you okay??” Ma’s voice snapped the memories away in an instant. Marina turned. Ma was standing at her door. A single tear rolled down Ma’s cheek. Instinctively, Marina reached up to touch her own drenched face.

They looked at each other for a long moment without speaking. It was like looking into a mirror.

Ma was holding a glass of water and a bottle of white pills.

“Are they yours or mine,” Marina said coolly. Those years of giving her mother that medicine when she was younger.

She snatched the bottle over, and read the label. National University Hospital of Singapore, Neuroscience Clinic.

Rage engulfed her.

“How could you do this Ma?? I am not you. How could you give me your medicine??”

“Marina! You have to get back to reality!

“What reality.” She answered. An unnatural calmness had seeped in.

“You are back in Singapore. That boy…whoever he is. That ang moh in England. Don’t be stupid. He’s not coming back to you.”

Tears flowed down her face.

“Listen to the doctor, girl. You are not going to recover like this.”

“I will not be like you, Ma!”

Marina grabbed the jar of pebbles off the floor, and stormed out of the house. She didn’t know how long she ran, but she knew she could not stop. Images were flashing in her head like black and white negatives.

Ethan raising her hand to his lips as they looked at a Claude Monet painting. Them lying on the grass looking up at a sky frosted with stars. Ocean sounds. Her parents fighting. A knife. Ethan’s broken voice and back turned away from her, the last night they slept together. Peeking into her mother’s room to see her motionless, eyes vacant. Holding her breath as she waited for her mother to blink.

If we are meant to be, we’ll see each other again.”

The note of finality in his voice. The intercom calling her name.

Marina ran, and felt like she was drowning.

Then the shatter of glass. Pebbles flew everywhere. The last thing she remembered seeing was the jagged orange rock splintering into half.

– – –

© 2014, by Evelyn Lee, Singapore. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.

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