By Andrew Robinson
Featured art: Zurich by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
The girl from Zurich is deathly quiet. But even in a king-sized bed her presence prickles me awake. Her fetal body rises, falls, a pillow wedged between us. A natural end approaches now; I’m sure she knows it too. We met six months ago, flotsamed onto the misfit table at a Chinese wedding. There was nothing to do but drink, and seven wines into the night we decided to go slumming at Orchard Towers—Singapore’s neon throwback of tacky sleaze. Sailors go there for the prostitutes, and bankers for the irony, but for her it was the Filipino bands. I love to dance to them, she said, they always try so hard. But she wouldn’t go there without a man, and so, still in my suit at 4 a.m., I held her as she cried on the sticky dancefloor. Cried with drunken empathy for the Indonesian whores she was dancing with. At their age I was still in school, she said, And they have to sell themselves to these fucking men. She feinted at the sweaty marines, bewildered with Burmese whisky and shore leave, and she had me at that. I’ve always been a sucker for compassion—it doesn’t always serve me well.
Then as she sniffed into the smoky bathroom I texted her something about goodness—I don’t remember what—which showed up as her Facebook status the next day. But like the young marines, she was shipping out in the morning, her company posting her to Paris. And it wasn’t until her stint was up—four months later—that we got to meet again. And all that texting and mailing and chatting online, it didn’t serve to warn us that after just a few weeks it wouldn’t be working the way we’d hoped. And now it’s coming to an end—no relish of redemption here—my thoughts rise on a sleepy surge of affection. The girl from Zurich: I’ll remember her—I will.
I’m itching all over; this is a permanent condition, exacerbated, I am sure, by Singapore’s heat and humidity. My eyes in particular seem always to be itchy. The irritation burrows under the skin, emerging in random places like Whac- a-Mole. After I scratch my forearms it slithers to my chest; after my chest, my cheeks. My acupuncturist calls it the snake, a restlessness that writhes beneath the skin. As I scratch, the girl from Zurich stirs, and absurdly I stretch to touch her shoulder. She twists away, grunting, and my hands retreat. Six years ago, the girl from Taipei would roll toward me in her sleep, the corners of her smile glowing on my shoulder.
It’s been six years since the girl from Taipei, and—chastised by this thought— I squirm. It’s been six years, and in my version of the past, my life divided the moment she left. Such happiness I remember; I’ve never known it since. She was an addiction—my appetite growing by what it fed on. And it kept growing until the Bad Time, until the double-whammy of her deceit and my mother’s cancer lashed across my thirtieth birthday in New York. This was meant to be a grown-up moment, six months in Wall Street a pupation before our lives could begin. Instead came the crash. First was my mother, who never would tag an e-mail urgent, even when the content was Stage Three cancer. Bludgeoned by the news, I dialed Taiwan, innocent of the sea of troubles, the dark battalion that squatted waiting me on that call. Her tone betrayed her, a cough sputtered in the background; this was the moment where everything changed. Vague as John-a- Dreams, I stared at the phone as her voice—8,000 miles away—went distant; I would be facing this problem alone. The green carpet opened up beneath me, and—in the cartoon version of my life—through this came the Darkness, oozing in from a Disney dimension.
Shivering those dazed weeks across a brutal February, I hovered like a phantom through Times Square. It was five months after 9/11, and the city was slowly emerging from its shell, blinking with wintry resilience. You know the healing has begun, a comedian says down in Chelsea, when you see the cab drivers honking again, rolling their windows down and screaming Fuck You at each other, and as I laugh at this a nervous coil spasms in my gut. At Ground Zero, I look into the depth of the ruin, wondering. What would I do, given a choice, the girl from Taipei or my mother—and I don’t like where my thoughts take me. It shames to think about it now. It angers me really, when I think of all that’s happened since—her indifference the butterfly wings that catalyzed a chaotic spiral. I spend my birthday drinking with strangers in the Lower East Side, and I am grateful for the city’s kindness. But I knew even then that gratitude, like alcohol, is a weak substitute for love.
It’s true that a woman drove me to drink; I’d never been much of a drinker before. Once in a while I still check out her Facebook profile. She looks the same as ever—how is it possible that she doesn’t seem to age? A hint of sunset behind her, the radiance torturing me just a little bit. I remember shopping for gifts for her, back before the Bad Time. See me now: walking the length of Manhattan, a grinning idiot blackened in rain. Sitting outside a Tainan teahouse, we discussed our future over an anthill of discarded peanut shells, the streetlamps glowing warm above us. We bought a fish fresh from the seafood market, and as I carried it back to our holiday apartment it slapped and wriggled inside the plastic bag. Traveling for work in Seoul or Shanghai, I would text her options from my room service menu. Asking her to choose her favorite breakfast, as though I could teleport it from my stomach to hers. Look at this grinning idiot: happy and inane. In my version of the past, these are the best moments of my life.
My mother insists there is nothing I can do, no reason to fly back. But a spectral voice warns me to return anyway, to go and be useless by her hospital bed. Instead I stay in Manhattan, counting off the remainder of my sentence in notches. These are bad days. The New York chill slows time; surviving each day becomes a little victory. I check my e-mail forty times an hour, consuming the Darkness in chunks. A bottle of wine lasts a lunchtime, maybe an afternoon, two bottles a whole night. Sometimes I struggle to the gym, telling myself that if I can complete this straining set of reps, if I can run this far in under an hour, then all will be well: the surgery will be a success, and I will step through a doorway in sliding time, all the Bad Things gone. But one Saturday morning the phone rings, and I sway on the green carpet again, pummelled by words: Statistical improbability, internal hemorrhaging, next of kin, personal effects. Whorls appear in the carpet, and I feel myself slipping through.
I can’t lie still. I pitch left and right, unable to settle. The harder I try to lie in place, the more difficult it becomes. The girl from Zurich murmurs, a twist of anger within her breath. I’m sure I seem insensitive, contemptuous of her rest, but it’s not so: In my heart there is a kind of fighting that will not let me sleep.
After the funeral I return to Singapore—nothing left for me in England or Manhattan now. Driven by demons, I hook up with a girl who’s just getting over her ex-boyfriend. She can’t pass more than two sentences before opening a bottle of whiskey, a timing that works for me. She forces me through her ex’s pictures, their photo albums together. The guy who’d ripped her soul apart, he doesn’t look like much to me: good-looking in a white-guy kind of way, I guess. She’ll never date an Australian again, she insists, and I nod, not quite believing this. On her tricep are the words This too shall pass, a reference to an older trauma about which I never probe. Well, we’ve all had our hearts torn by now, haven’t we, and torn the heart from someone else, and for all that the stars still go on shining. A Chinese Christian, she explains the practice of burning paper money, sneering at a generation of superstitious Singaporeans who think they can send gifts to their ancestors. Not just money, but paper cars, she snorts. Paper credit cards. Paper Prada bags. But there’s something in this idea, and two nights later I join a group of aunties around their tin bonfire, burning gifts to send to my mother. I neither believe nor disbelieve, but at least it feels like contrition. I’m a gormless foreign head taller than anyone around the fiery drum, but the aunties smile at me, as if I am one of their sons. Come to drive them home to their husbands, home to their daughters and grandchildren. As I turn back to my car one of them touches my shoulder, pressing two apples into my hands. Tears form in my eyes as I nod my thanks.
After this follows a slippery half-decade. In retrospect there are many wake-up calls, but in my drunken haze I manage to sleep through them. On business in San Francisco, I fly a PRC intern over from our Portland office. She irritates me so much I leave her at the Golden Gate Bridge, her whines of you can’t do this echo into the fog. One of the girls from our Japanese legal counsel flies to Singapore from Tokyo. She presents me with her parents’ letters, welcoming their new son-in-law to the family; I have clearly overestimated her ability to filter hyperbole. I make her sleep in the spare room, but neglect to lock my door, waking in the witching time of night as she levitates toward my bed, horror-movie hair straggling over her white dressing gown. At 4 a.m., I drive her to a hotel, pre-pay the bill, then flee the scene before she decides to commit seppuku.
I’m gouging at my calves, as if there is a burning there, a fire that needs to release from underneath the skin. It’s the snake, trying to find its way out of me. I’ve seen many doctors, but the diagnoses are the same: It’s the heat, the humidity: this climate doesn’t suit me. They can allay the symptoms with creams and steroids; they can’t address the cause.
I roll in drunk most nights, smearing my car across three lots, rap wailing from my stereo: See, I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem. I see a motherfuckin cop I don’t dodge him. The security guards nod at me; it’s not their problem so long as I don’t kill anyone, and I’m generally polite to them in any case. A French friend infiltrates a pod of Koreans, but tells me to be wary, because they’re wired differently from us. And though I arch an eyebrow when he says he’s not being racist, some ways down the line—after two months of incomplete conversations and mediocre sex—I give up on Koreans. They’re just wired differently, I say to anyone who asks. All my sins remembered; these are not my proudest moments.
And then, just when I begin to accept a friend’s diagnosis—that I have analgesia of the soul—the girl from Penang enters my life. She is a cartoon princess; sparrows and blackbirds tweet in halos above her. Her eyes are a liquid hazel, and through them she looks deep into me and transmits forgiveness. And from the moment she seeks confirmation that Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes (this is Trivial Pursuit, and there’s something about her unconditional trust in my knowledge), something flips in my head—an empty room fills with light. Like many educated Chinese, she’s a hardcore Christian—a creationist, for God’s sake—but in just a few weeks she sends me back into adolescence, back to a time when to finally kiss her goodnight, after ten chaste dates, has me doing hyperventilating laps around the carpark before, finally, I can compose myself enough to drive home, still disbelieving. Lying on my bed, I reflect on those moments when our minds touched, electric tendrils snaking in the air. Something that had been lying inert—a great, sleeping giant of hope—begins to stretch and murmur in the bomb shelter of my soul.
In the weeks that follow, feeling begins to return, like remote tingling in a paraplegic’s limbs. The tingling becomes a warmth, the warmth a buzzing hum. At times, there are moments of such crackling intensity that even my unshakeable atheism is challenged, if only for the acknowledgment that there are, clearly, forces in the world beyond our puny comprehension. Wondrous strange, Horatio. I tiptoe around the topic of religion, trying to appear respectful. Even agreeing that at some point, for her, I could maybe step into a church, telling myself I’ll at least try to keep an open mind. Back in England, I had a vegan friend who married a hunter—she was in love, she said, she couldn’t help it—and I tell myself these things can happen. And it’s true: Though I scorn belief, I feel this irrational, magical thing, feel it as clear as the back hand of pain. I have taken a restorative sip from the Holy Grail, and sense the Darkness beginning to recede, the night demons tiptoeing backward into shadow. I find myself thinking of my mother more. I’m drinking less, and my memory becomes sharper. Don’t do anything stupid, she pleads, from deep within my dreams.
But call no man happy until he is dead. It turns to crap—of course it does. Singapore is a small place, and the three-degrees-of-separation chickens come clucking home. During the Dark Days I’d misstepped—slept with her best friend’s friend, it seems. And while I don’t believe this should be a deal-breaker, apparently she does not agree. The ensuing argument moths down random corridors, the way ascendant rage does, alighting on the girl from Taipei and the years that followed. Years I want to relegate to the remote places, a septic tank of memories I naively thought could stay sealed forever. I’ll accept judgment from you, I say, increasingly incensed, only after you watch your own mother wither away. When you’ve left her to suffer her final days alone because your compulsive drinking and man-whoring got in the way. When you’ve lived for years with that, come back and we’ll talk—we’ll have a great old chat. But oh, there’s no good way that could ever come out, is there, and I can’t take it back, no matter how sincere my apologies. It’s a weighty thing, to watch yourself crush something rare and precious. My mother would have liked this one but, oh well, there are now two good reasons they will never meet. For months afterward I will swear that Aretha Franklin has opened a clairvoyant window directly into my soul. I’m drinking again, sings Aretha, which indeed I am.
But there is always company in Singapore, hot equatorial nights on my twenty-fifth-floor balcony. I am a wonderful actor, and I can turn on the charm—I really can—even with all that wine inside me. I stagger on the edge of the balcony but never fall. When I learn that my vegan friend and her hunter husband got divorced, I smile to myself and say I’m sorry out loud for the first time. It is three years and many, many, many bottles of wine before I can put the girl from Penang behind me, before we can sit down over a civil lunch. And when we do, after I’ve finished my plate of duck noodles and bok choy and asked about her work and her family, after I’ve called for the bill and placed my chopsticks in neat parallel lines, only then does she tell me she’s getting married. I congratulate her. I hug her. Then I go home and wait for the Darkness. Goblins sidle from the dark corners of the apartment, grinning; Rumpelstiltskin leers at a bottle of single malt and asks me in a South Indian accent, Shall we open this one next, boss?
The girl from Zurich rolls and murmurs, grimacing, as if at some tormenting memory. I put my hand on her shoulder but she mutters tiny angers. I pull back at once; it already feels like a violation. I used to write words on the shoulder of the girl from Taipei, onto the canvas of her upper back: Goodness and mercy follow you; Little Miss, Pretty Miss, Blessings light upon you; Smiles await you when you rise. Messages I hoped would seep into her dreams. But the girl from Zurich, I can feel it: rows and rows of military pikemen, spiked around her heart.
I meet the niece of a friend—it’s one of those Chinese things whereby, though technically a generation apart, she is only three years younger than him. Nevertheless the connotation sticks, and she likes to introduce me as her uncle’s friend and then later, as her uncle. She has been everywhere, is just back in Singapore after six years in Venice, in London, in Dubai, in Sao Paolo. She shows brief and misguided interest in me, but—after spending a little time watching me at work—soon clears this from her system. She becomes a surrogate girlfriend for whom I can buy quirky gifts: holy water from Israel, light-sabre chopsticks from Tokyo. Every time I’m drunk I text her a movie quote: It’s you I really love, you know—today, tomorrow, forever. And she always texts me the reply: I’ll keep that in mind, which on my phone screen looks especially noncommittal. The first time we go out, she makes me drop her some blocks from her home, wanting to hide that she lives in a mansion. Her father calls her nouveau poor, which makes me laugh. I like the old guy, and he likes me too; whenever he catches me in the house he forces whiskey into my hand. This is a 25-year-old from the Outer Hebrides, he says, waving my protestations away. I jingle my car keys but he dismisses them with a flutter of his fingers. White people can talk their way out of drunk driving, he insists. On the way out the door he slaps me on the shoulder and tells me to drive safe.
We travel to Las Vegas for her thirtieth birthday and sleep in the same bed. The first night of her thirties, she picks up a cowboy in a dive bar. I’m alone at the buffet the next morning as she gets out of his pickup truck, winking at me as she clacks into the breakfast room. The Asian family at the next table tuts and frowns. I’m in awe of your stamina, I say, as she sits down to a plate of bacon. Your sexual stamina.
Fuck you, she says, her glasses wonky. The healing has begun, I say, but she is distracted, waving the waiter over for coffee.
On the drive out to the Grand Canyon, she gives me all the details, how the cowboy keeps shotgun shells in his underwear drawer, how his main form of recreation is lassoing cattle. I ain’t never had me a Chinese girl before, she drawls, and we howl, laughing too at a motorcycle and sidecar that grinds the highway beside us, straight out of the 1970s. Why aren’t you gay? she asks. You would have made the best gay friend. She makes me wonder why my life couldn’t always be like this, driving careless through the desert, just laughing. America. Despite the associations, despite New York, I never allow it to be tainted. America still belongs to me; the Darkness was always made in Taiwan.
She doesn’t do or even get heartbreak, she says. Though when the subject of an old, old ex comes up, something flashes dark behind her eyes, and for a while she responds to my questions in grunts. Our friends can’t believe we don’t get together, and neither perhaps can we. My best explanation is that it would be too obvious. Too obvious. Once I tell her that it’s good, because it would have inevitably turned to crap, and maybe nasty with it. This way, we get to stay friends forever. To my surprise she agrees, and ends up with some Canadian guy who isn’t nearly good enough for her. At their wedding, I slur at him at the urinals, informing him that if he mistreats her, I will rip off his face and staple it to his fucking soul. I surprise myself by the violence of this image—I don’t know where it comes from. He just rolls his eyes, presses my shoulder, and says O-kay buddy as he walks away. I marvel at how someone like this can possess such luck—better luck than me, it seems. But I know: I am pigeon-livered, I lack gall; I only have myself to blame. I’ve always assumed I can go back and fix things later, perform a life reboot and start over. There’s nothing unique about this particular delusion—not here in Expatland.
I tear at my collarbone—now raw and inflamed. Sometimes I wake with blood on the sheets. But three days in Melbourne, or Madrid, and it all clears up, as if the poison has been drawn from me. The message is not subtle: Singapore is expelling me—it wants me out. The girl from Zurich is in deep sleep now. And my eyes are itching, itching like crazy; I scratch and it makes them worse, but I can’t stop scratching anyway. Sometimes I just want to scratch them right out of my head.
And then there was the girl from Massachusetts, and we meet in a good place, in the sweet spot of cultural distance. Our differences are exotic enough to beguile, but not great enough to cause real problems. And now I learn to speak American, to talk about Masshole drivers and clusterfucks. And me, all I have to say is that I’ll see her in a fortnight, or that I can’t be arsed, and for just a while I can almost share her delusion that I am charming and hilarious. For how we laugh, this one and me: We laugh so much together we can almost laugh away the Darkness. I laugh from deep forgotten places, from the lungs, the kidneys, the stomach. I used to laugh like this all the time, I tell her; I used to be so happy. Even though everyone should know by now that no one cares what you used to be. She’d married young, and the ugly shrapnel wounds of her divorce had left her as fatalistic as me. It’s good to have this in common, though while shared neuroses may have helped connect us, they couldn’t keep us together. We last almost a year before it implodes in Bangkok, over a Michelin– starred meal two parts spice, three parts pretension.
But still, there are the moments. Like when we sit down in a smoky tapas bar in Barcelona and drink red wine and eat salchichas and just laugh and laugh, and I look at her and wonder: This could work, couldn’t it? All these vapid idiots, she snarls, scrolling through her phone, celebrating the freedoms of Europe with a cloud of cigarette smoke. Always posting affirmative updates on Facebook, she says. Waking up Monday morning, ready to face the week, or Feeling loved on Wednesday afternoon. Who are these fucking people? Why are they my friends?
Is it just me, I agree, but to read people’s Facebook updates you could almost believe that all angst has gone from this world, and—you know—I’m pretty sure it hasn’t.
And then, when we are lost in Ho Chi Minh City, and she is hot and flustered with the effort of never losing control—I am the only one allowed to get angry—I put my hand on her shoulder and think: This is what growth is about, isn’t it? You know that strange, unfamiliar feeling, a low echo from one of the forgotten places, like one of those obscure back muscles your Pilates instructor sometimes tells you to activate? That’s called compassion, you selfish little fuck, and maybe, given time, you’ll be able to isolate the muscle, develop it for something more than aesthetics. And I know, in these little epiphanic moments, that she has to be the one, that with her, I can become a better human being, that in a life partner you should always seek potential for growth, this above all other things. Well, that isn’t quite wrong maybe, but perhaps there were other lessons that I missed along the way.
When the subject of the girl from Taipei comes up, her eyes flash venomous with an alien rage, as though all she wants to do is to travel back in time and shield me with her love and indignation. She rallies me to fight for this, to not give up, but I do anyway, trapped in that hell of guilt—the recipient of a pure love I don’t deserve. I begin to acknowledge the masochism others point out to me. The Everlasting may have set his canon ’gainst self-slaughter, but not self-sabotage, and I start to accept that there is probably something wrong, that there is deep damage. But still I sometimes wonder: Our children could have been Americans, Asia fading into my past. Perhaps I should have picked this path; I do think this sometimes.
It’s 4 a.m., and the girl from Zurich continues to sleep the sleep of death. I inventory her imprint in my apartment: a couple of dresses, an electric tooth- brush, a contact lens case. It will be an easy transition. She is just a verse, half a verse of a song, and the girl from Taipei is the chorus. The song goes like this: There was a girl from Taipei. And in my version of the past, these were the best days of my life. When she came back from the U.S. and then Canada, she went straight into a job in one of the big accountancy firms. On her first day she was sexually propositioned by a fifty-something Swiss expat. She cuffed him with a harassment suit and had him fired; that’s my girl. In Tainan, we sat on the grass one afternoon, and I felt a warmth around us, a cocoon of purpose I thought would last forever. We bought a fish fresh from the seafood market, and as I carried it back to our holiday apartment it slapped and wriggled inside the plastic bag. But it took too long to die, and out of compassion or squeamishness I made her carry the bag instead; she was always the strong one. To this day I wonder if I did the right thing. The girl from Zurich murmurs something in her sleep but I don’t catch it. I think about my mother. I should have gone back to England, should have held her hand until the end. It would have helped. I would have been there to cry for her, if nothing more than that.
The girl from Zurich has opened her eyes. She’s looking at me, staring, and at first I don’t know why. There’s a noise, an animal wailing, and I realize it’s coming from me.
She asks me something, but I can’t hear her. I let go of trying. I drown the stage in tears.
Andrew Robinson is originally from the UK but has been based in Asia—mainly Singapore—for the past two decades. His fiction has won awards such as the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and has been published in Glimmer Train, The Spectator (UK), and Der Freund (Germany). He is a graduate of the MFA program at City University of Hong Kong.
Originally published in NOR 22.