I couldn’t reach you on your phone. At first, I reasoned that you were, of course, busy—there were people more immediate to your life to contact, family members to reassure, arrangements to be made. And it wasn’t like we were in the habit of replying immediately to texts. It was usual for you to take a few days to respond—an average of three days, according to our chat history. But you were a continent away, in a city where the numbers rocketed daily by the thousands at the bottom of an apex. Flights were being cancelled in masses. The newsreel was a scrolling obituary. As hours bled into hours, I fought the urge to call you – for fear of losing it over the phone if you answered, and losing it anyway if you didn’t. It takes a little over a second to text back, to say you’re okay. What could account for the difference in our estimations of urgency?
My mind oscillated between concluding that you really were the fucking worst, and wholeheartedly accepting the option of relinquishing our friendship if it guaranteed your safety—a compromise so illogical I’m appalled it even presented itself as a thought.
Perhaps I was mistaken about where I stood in your life—I was far closer to the fringes than I’d thought. Or perhaps there were two ways to live, both equal halves of the same truth: You were connected so closely to the never-ending present of eternity that you could afford to miss all the chances inconvenient in life and still live fully without a sense of having missed anything, whereas I clung to the perception that each moment and its exact potential happens only once, throughout eternity, and despite the atomic persistence of the existence of everything in the universe, of who we were and are and will be, every breath of change sweeps away the patterns of love, denial, acceptance, rejection, the falling in and falling out of life, leaving only silence to take apart.
Three days later, you said you were okay – You? Are you still going in to work?
It’s been over a year since I’ve moved into a shared apartment on the outskirts of the city. I’d signed the lease on my twenty-eighth birthday, anxious to stake my claim on a sliver of future before the chance disappeared. The unit has no living room. There’s no dining room either. The entranceway is partially covered by an Indian rug with blue and white embroidery, like a housewarming afterthought. Beyond it, a narrow hallway runs from the front door past the tiny kitchen before veering sharply off a corner to my room. The view from my window overlooks a construction site, and above it, a looming curve of sky. Far out into the horizon, the orange crown of the airport control tower peeks out past the top of the scaffolding, like a tangerine in an upside-down suspension, not quite reaching the clouds. It’s a grown-up dorm on the top floor. I’d said yes partly because of the view, and partly because the deal didn’t include a live-in landlord.
I’d intended to live hermetically. The plainest way I could ensure a lack of intrusion into my private orbit was to keep my distance. I didn’t talk to my housemates—a flight stewardess took the master room next to mine, and a pair of sisters who kept to themselves in a smaller, windowless room tucked into the other side of the hallway. We might have been mildly curious about one another at first, but since our interactions were confined to polite greetings or housekeeping notes and parcel deliveries, our perceptions of each other were incomplete so there were no clear layers to pry apart. Ingrained in them too, I felt, was an understanding of the human propensity to move on and start anew. Graciously unasked, we gifted each other the peace of privacy.
For months, I watched the planes climb into the cloudy abyss of light, and held out hope that my life too had a trajectory that would soon break off from the grind and soar into the path of an unchartered freedom.
At work, I let other people’s minds infiltrate mine. I learnt to think within the parameters of easy-to-please formulas. I measured ideas according to pre-approved concepts and square boundaries, then adjusted them in favor of someone else’s opinion of what was acceptable. Safe was good. If there was no underlying fear to guard against, then the idea itself was thought problematic. I’d discovered early on in the business that charging against the rules with puristic approaches to artistry was a rookie misconception which not only prolonged an idea’s inevitable destruction, but did so with maximal pain.
Time, or the lack of it, allowed me to dismiss any reservations I had as minor inconveniences in the pursuit of hard deadlines and key objectives that sliced through weekends. Weeks went by like days. Dinner was on the house—in the office. On set, crew moved with automated efficiency, body clocks in tandem with five-minute blocks. They shared a gruff appreciation for mealtimes and complementary smoke breaks, and bonded over dry fraternal humor.
After hours, I’d try to work on a play I’d been stuck on for a year, but distressingly, the thought of writing repelled me. I pegged it down to the wrong timing. The ideas would come, I would be in a state of flow, I just had to catch them at the right time. In the meantime, work was survival, a real hustle of pragmatic achievement. And even if I wasn’t creatively fulfilled, at least I was still learning the technical ropes, and racking up steep practice in soft skills.
State ideals were at stake—and they trumped artistic ones, always. Client tastes coagulated in copy-paste molds. I knew which ideas they would choose, which lines they would prefer, the sanitized cut-out characters they liked to recycle with different names, their preference for only pathos or slapstick, nothing grey, nothing complicated. Nothing too human. Mothers were long-suffering, domesticated worriers. Fathers were either strict or benign. Grandparents were guileless, blessed with newborn helplessness. Across the city, at bus stops and in train stations, screens propagated an endemic of puppeteered virtuousness, LED stories that opened with a beseeching glance, a frustrated sigh, before closing with a hand sliding over another, a final pull-out on a small family smile-nodding around a dinner table. The smile-nod. It was exactly what it was—smiling and nodding, a reflex with nothing behind it.
‘Simple’ and ‘easy to understand’—which really meant ‘reductive’—were the founding principles of what was considered appropriate civic messaging. Likewise, ‘obedient’ and ‘well-behaved’ were synonymous with ‘good’. It wasn’t an inability to examine life as it was, but a dogged refusal to even look at it. This was the state’s distilled persona of an audience member: An adult child, easily acquiescing, who had to be guided on right and wrong or they risked falling outside the box and facing certain death, destitution, incarceration, or worse—revolution. If people followed the rules, they’d turn out alright. They’d be worthy of state initiatives, forever innocent. Make all the right decisions and life would be compact and straightforward, easily compressed into nine by sixteen dimensions. This template growth path to model citizenry was an unspoken order upheld by the power of law, activated by the conditioned will of a ‘moral’ public. If we had to pretend, then it was for the good of the whole. Without inspection, without introspection, the surface sheen of orderly life, that nation-wide hallmark, would stay intact.
I was complicit in upholding these tenets, and had convinced myself that while they were a different set of values from my own, they were still reasonable ones because I had a room on the top floor on a quiet leafy street, and a window with a sky view. I could buy groceries without worry and save every month. I could afford to travel. I had health insurance. My entry into a measure of financial stability gave me peace of mind. But every time I crawled into bed, I’d feel the fear creep up—an anxiety that lay in the falsity of forced resolutions, and a bitter dread that I’d lost the ability to feel the world as profoundly, as fully and devastatingly, as I did when I was the person you first met.
Under the surface, the roiling tumult of repressed anger and frustration was not simply mine, but something communal and cavernous. This dissatisfaction didn’t show up as large-scale demonstrations across the country, but hid behind small protests in behavior. It was in the coarse clipped tones and brusque instructions, abrasiveness championed as realism. It was in the useful talk about property and insurance, who bought a resale flat for a bargain, the gossip, who gained weight and who got too skinny, the modulated presentation voices, the Americanized consonants, the false utility of worrying but worrying anyway for fear of not being of use at anything else, for fear of not having a purpose for existing, as if to be a functioning member of society, one had to be angry about something, because anger stood up for itself with a loudness that drowned sadness and loneliness and futility.
It was in the mother screaming at her young son in a car park as he backed away from her towards the road while a car narrowly missed him, as he cried for his absent father who would not save him then and who will never save him for the rest of the times he will experience her targeted rage, a father who made a certain set of decisions that substituted obligation for love, and who, without the culpability of deliberation, sealed the conditions his son will grow up in. And the boy will grow up and hate them both, his mother first and his father later, though he will hate his father more for his passivity and rationality, dual ingredients of cowardice, as he tries to become the man he thinks his father should have been. He will resent the stranger who stopped several feet away, who was about to intervene, but did not when she recognized that stare.
It was in that stare. Dead and hollow with rage and self-loathing. A woman who hated the father of her son, because he did not love her, and if her anger showed up in volume, perhaps it would move him past indifference. Her confusion arose from her inability to articulate the problem, to explain to herself much less her husband, the complex practice of loving someone and making them feel loved. Her resentment swelled in heaving shoulders, an uncontrollable seizure of control, her son’s fear igniting something deep and shameful within her, how dare he think her dangerous, this betrayal of trust, this reaction of his that diminished her, reinforced the responsive evidence that she was someone her husband could not love, anyone who could love her was weak as a child, so why would he, why would her son love her, why should she show him gentleness when it wasn’t afforded her, why should she when it was softness that had landed her in the suffering she was in, unloved and alone? She would make sure he got into the car, risk them both, risk it all, and he would get into the car because there was a clean record of good behavior to keep that started by not being late to school.
It was in the stranger who recognized that stare and finally understood the failure of others to intervene in her own life, who watched, affixed by the recognition of a replicated event, by the arising of old fear, of moments repeating themselves, of emotions repeating, of reawakened thoughts of powerlessness, in the conflation of childhood and adulthood, for even if every event happens only once, its ghost lingers and creates new replicas in the absence of time, each one a test for new phases of growth, but why this cruelty, why—when she used to imagine that in such a situation she’d have the resolve to intervene – was inaction the only available response?
I still think about the boy, that he should hate me for not changing the thematic progression of his life, if the themes could be changed at all.
When the borders closed in March, panic activated a dormant web of association: A midnight call from a friend in London, messages from old schoolmates, former colleagues, relatives, a one-time date, connections I’d lost touch with over the years, scattered across several different countries, strewn along different forks in the road – an illumination of individual flight paths as they crossed again. Replies came and went more promptly than they normally would. There was a gentle humor to these interactions that insulated friendship against the severity of historical change. Warmth renewed with the immediacy of each response, until, sated with gladness and reminiscence and relief, the conversations closed with a determinate ending, resolved themselves, once the sheer force of initiation was wholly expended.
I sensed an intervention outside my own life that orchestrated these connections, synchronizing with the driving forces of free will in fitful collisions that determined the lifespan of each encounter. Everyone I ever met in my life was linked to a fragment of who I was at any given point, just as I was linked to a fragment of each of them. The decision to keep in touch was a cipher of a deeper consciousness nestled within each of us: We were alone, together, in a delicate awareness of wholeness, extinguishable by a flicker of doubt.
At work, people were kinder to each other. Company chats logged regular reminders of temperature checks, updates on daily case counts, useful information detailing the best places to get masks and hand sanitizer, commiserating pleas for anyone feeling unwell to go see a doctor immediately. These statements consistently ended with emojis and personalized stickers. Care was serviceable, practical, much like how food used to be the preferred means of provision. I drew comfort from being a part of a group, even if my participation in it was peripheral. Within its exchanges of virtual caretaking, I was accounted for—a name, a number, a non-excludable contributor to the formation of a read receipt.
My busyness ran contrary to the slowdown of the city. Outside, traffic was almost non-existent. Changes in the weather were vivid, notable events. Virtual conferences meant looking into slices of everyone’s rooms, though gradually, like morning-after regret, people started turning off their webcams. The work chats on my phone ran deep into the night, in flurries of a dozen messages per hour. Working when time had stopped felt strangely forced, as if the timelines were only markers around a vast swathe of unmovable space people thought they were bound to. In order to feel time, people fixed a replica of it to an unfixable place. But this pulled back the curtain further so that in brief gaps of idleness, the nature of work itself seemed absurd. For the most part, work was urgent, enormous beyond its contents. Word went round that elsewhere, entire departments were being laid off. I’m so lucky to be employed, I thought. So lucky.
As the world condensed, local affairs were instantaneously global. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was on CNBC’s Squawk Box sounding advice with preternatural calm, a visitor to some form of working reality that was less civilized, less advanced than the one he had come from. In the combustion of spectacle and reason, everything took on a patina of TV invention: The world stage had collapsed, and in its reordered force field, the nation’s aptitude for administration was at its sexiest.
If it wasn’t clear before, it was clear now that instincts were universal. People went out to their windows and clapped for frontline workers. They compared the death tolls of countries, traded conspiracy theories of the virus’s origin.
My sister, who was lodging on an apple farm in New South Wales, frequently sent me updates of her fruit picking adventures: An apple that had fallen off its bough into an empty nest. A ginger farm cat she’d befriended named Harry. The dinners she made with other backpackers.
Once, while picking an apple, she’d accidentally crushed a baby snail through its shell.
In April, we finally caught up on Zoom. Four, five hours of talking about everything else, making up for lost time. Conversation that burned through the hours with a familiarity so bright it lit a magic reversion to normality. We talked about our jobs, politics on both sides of the Atlantic, politics here, the shitty things we’d watched, the best ones, creativity, solitude, the music that stirred in you an impression of patient love. At the end of the call, near midnight, you confessed that you hadn’t had dinner and had to go eat. I was secretly moved. I let the moment pass. I didn’t tell you what was important.
Everything we said had seemed enough.
Afterwards, I thought about the things I want to talk to you about but haven’t. Like how back in school, it was always easy to spot someone who had been raised well by how well-adjusted they were, how easy and assured their interactions with others appeared. How they could assert themselves without wavering. It’s a youthful mistake to make – equating accomplishment with solidity of character when self-possession is what truly indicates how adeptly a person would navigate the road. The difference shows up most clearly, most brutally, after graduation. I think you know this. I think you’d understand.
I imagined telling you I’m selectively mute in group meetings, that I think twice about entering a room with people in it and sometimes don’t enter at all, that I’m afraid to ask for help. I wish I told you I’m scared of having lunch one-on-one with people I don’t know well, that it’s easier to talk to you on video call because I’m nervous around you in person, and despite the length of our friendship, I hesitate to say I know you well.
I knew your open perspectives on the world, your inhumanly egalitarian approach to people. The steely conviction behind your quiet. The rigor of your mind. Even in repose, you were always thinking. You were gentle with differing opinions and harsh on ignorant assumptions. Your disapproval didn’t flare as a raised voice, but as a coldness that seared uncritical thought. Your laugh was easy-going, but the intensity of your consideration betrayed the depth of your humanity – as if it were something to be hidden. As if to tilt the scales of injustice and inequity, one had to be wary of self-revelation. You were watchful. You paid careful attention to ideas and silences. When you listened, you listened completely.
Virtual calls preserved the intimacy of conversation but extricated us from the fuller responsibilities that attended physical company. The world disappeared, reappeared, whenever we reconnected on our screens. There was safety in the expediency of exiting a conversation with a click, and from it, a mutual trust that the option would not be prematurely enacted.
It was ambiguity that held our connection, held the casual constancy of our friendship that neatly sutured the distance between our encounters, between who we were now and who we were last. You were watchful. So was I. The beats between our sentences hung with the implicit recognition that the most personal aspects of our lives were saved as mysteries, like the great unknown of your thoughts, to be unfolded only in a meteoric reversal of will.
Three days later, the nation entered lockdown.
The stewardess hasn’t been flying since March. I sensed her growing restlessness through the muffled strains of her Hot 100 playlist as the bass thumped through the wall that delineated her room and mine. She had a preference for Beyoncé and Little Mix. Occasionally, I heard worship music.
Her stay-home routine was industrious. At seven-thirty in the morning, I’d hear the drill of the blender in the kitchen. At two in the afternoon, she’d either stir-fry lunch or test out dessert recipes she’d found online. At first, I made a mental note to avoid the kitchen during those hours, so I didn’t have to make small talk. But one afternoon, she knocked on my door and handed me a plate of non-bake carrot cake she’d proudly steamed in the rice cooker.
Most days, the dishes in the sink piled up by the afternoon, then disappeared into the cupboards clean and dry right before dusk–the golden hour when the clouds would be streaked with final light, before everything above the horizon disappeared into a deepening blue and the red light of the tower gleamed awake against a sky empty of planes.
In June, the nation eased into Phase Two of its Circuit Breaker. Bubble tea stores reopened. Cautiously, people headed back onto the streets. They didn’t move in crowds, but in scatterings of lone or paired excursions. They talked more to strangers, and bid their goodbyes thoughtfully, without finality. Stay safe, take care. Remember to scan the code.
It was now company policy to travel to work by either private transport or solitary Grab rides. Drivers were eager to chat. They buzzed with fascination about the responsive failures of Western superpowers, spoke somberly about layoffs and hiring freezes, the futile job searches of newly graduated sons and daughters, and bristled about the red tape of government aid packages. They joked about the upturned world order, how everyone was in the same boat everywhere in the world—Can’t escape! They pulled over at my destination, laughing, hopes raised unreasonably by the restorative example of a passenger still going in to work, like real life before.
Miss, you take care, they’d kindly insist, as they would to their children.
Filming was deemed an essential service and there were government PSAs to shoot. I went back on set and, through my mask, instructed people to look into the camera and smile.
I reached out to you again.
This time, there was only a lone grey tick next to my message. It stayed there, an unfinished delivery, into the next day, and the next, and the next.
Your number was no in longer in use.
In the evenings, for ventilation, the sisters left their door ajar so a fluorescent beam cut straight across the floor, a pathway to the opposite door where a pair of exquisite batik slippers sat outside, untouched. They usually made dinner at eight. They spoke in soft voices that drowned somewhat amidst clanging utensils and running water, phone speaker Mandopop and the whisper of steam misting the glass divider that closed off the kitchen. Lives partitioned by walls and schedules.
Shut in my room, I replied work texts with emojis and stickers, left my notes on an offline cut, made promises to keep tomorrow’s deadlines.
At night, most things fell away in the undulating darkness. The leak under the kitchen sink, the grime collecting along grooves, the stillness in the hallway after the lights were turned off, the too-loud bass still thumping through the wall, the fragments of filtered voices punctuating screen-light in light-hearted banter, laughter concealing the true depth of compassion and longing—but why so, in such a time, and if not now, when?
Disquiet gnashed at the gauze of indifference I tried to wrap around myself. Vaulted above the firmament, the moon waxed towards fullness, a cycle completed at leisure. I sensed the gravitational pull of the bed, the floorboards, the apartment. The electric charge through my phone, its screen a dark rectangular pool punctured by the glowing outline of a small speech bubble—a reminder that I was chain-linked to my fifty-odd colleagues. Outside my window, an invisible thread ran through nightfall, looping its way through the light-flecked apartment blocks across the street, the glowing living rooms, the control tower still glimmering its red night signal, before burrowing deep beneath the earth, deep into the substrate of creation that nourishes everyone. There was a force swirling underneath the shifting plates, a subterranean ordering of lives. The thread was woven and spun, pulled and tightened, by what might have begun as a single act of will—whose?
If we’re coded to live in ways that are primed for loss, then connection defies purpose. Where time is felt, what would my decisions count for, if not for some valiant grasp at the preservation of elevated emotion, of joy and wonder and thrill— however brief—and the willingness to endure their opposites in the process of striving? If not to prolong existence in spite of its finiteness? In the face of impermanence, is connection not a brush with the infinite?
Perhaps at an earlier untraceable juncture, an agreement had been made—a contract that determines where we’re born, who we’re drawn to. Every intersecting event harbors a nexus of intentions and emotions and thoughts and the lines to be spoken and received, to formulate the lesson, to formulate the theme that reverberates for as long as the lesson has yet to be learnt. Once we’ve discovered the maximum impact of collision, we would change beyond ourselves, become the people we would become. I’d have to make peace with the prospect of losing you someday.
The revelation stripped away the solidity of my surroundings, ripped the skin off the night’s quotidian face to expose fully the clarifying presence of mortality—yours, mine. It was now vital, perilous, a direct order from the first act of will, to stake our bond on the emergence of truth. Create a fork in the road. Recalibrate momentum. No future accomplishment would surmount the fulfilment of this imperative.
I’d have to tell you before the rest of my life can begin.
I left my job the first week of August. On my last shoot, a project for National Day, one of the profiles we were filming was a Catholic priest. In between shots, he mentioned he had to rush off after his scenes to deliver last rites to a dying congregant. What’s the most common regret people have on their deathbeds? I asked.
That they didn’t live with intentionality, he said. They thought the urgent things were important, and the important things weren’t urgent.
At the end of August, the stewardess moved out to a cheaper place. Someone new would be moving in. I know I won’t be staying past next year. It’s an innate sense of timing, the kind of knowing I had as a kid when I’d sincerely believed I could wish any kind of life I wanted into existence. Or the first time I saw your name and it’d seemed strangely familiar – I knew then I would remember you for the rest of my life.
An intention plays out through the river of current events, waiting for the moment to arrive, for the signal of reciprocity, to fold into a stream of tangential decisions, before it alters physically the course of future. The themes of my life have not settled. Around me, collisions continue to reverberate. An apex has yet to be reached. There are momentous experiences to come, greater lessons to prepare for, new pathways to be cleared for the crossing as old ones are swept away, leaving only remembrance, a vague sense of origin, to take apart: The first act of will is a shared one. It always has been.
Your reply came, over Messenger. You said you were okay, you’d changed your number and hadn’t realized it wasn’t automatically updated—How are things on your end? Are you still working from home?
I’ll tell you in person, tell you what’s important, when you’re back in a city that has veered closer to the heart of influence, a city now irrevocably awakened, now a little less predictable, now a little less afraid—where I won’t have to wait for your reply.
I’ll tell you I love you.
Somewhere in the passing of our lives, it’s already done.
Denise Khng is a writer and director from Singapore.