CT wakes up, bathed in sweat.
It hasn’t rained for a few weeks and temperatures have soared to around thirty-six each day. A slight respite comes in the night when sometimes a cooler breeze blows in from the sea off Marine Parade. But it is short lived. Of course it is possible to have the air-con on every night but either out of habit or a belief handed down from his mother that the dry artificial cold air is bad for his lungs, he goes to sleep with the fan stirring the warm air in the bedroom.
It is silent save for the mechanical whirl. He looks at the digital alarm clock which flashes the time like a blinking idiot in the semi darkness. It is four in the morning.
He lies in bed, forcing himself to close his eyes although it takes great effort. It is easier to just leave them open but he hates the awful feeling of lying there looking at the rotating blades above him, like the propellers of a huge black hole threatening to suck his soul in, leaving him a hollow shell. Is this the reason why he feels so empty every day? Has his soul been sucked in bit by bit, night by night? Day fades into night followed by another day which again fades into another night, like the fading in and out of a boringly movie that refuses to end and he is trapped in the cinema by inertia.
How long has this been? Two years? Has it been two years? The last of the dynasty he used to joke about his mother. She was, in fact, the last. No one in her generation left.
CT turns on his side, hoping that the new position would be more comfortable and perhaps help him to relax a little more. The rustling of the fresh sheets under him is quite audible…..in the dead of the early morning hours, any sound is audible even against the monotonous whirling of the ceiling fan. The change in position doesn’t help so he turns on his other side. It doesn’t help either. He props him up against the headrest into a sitting position. This seems to be good as he feels his mind clearing. Even if he can’t sleep, the clarity in his head makes him feel alive, at least for now.
The antiseptic smell and the sterile whiteness of the hospital corridor walls created a rather unintended oppressiveness.
Footsteps echoed through the corridors once in a while when nurses in white walked around performing their duties. Everyone was whispering in stifled tones as if afraid that the slightest noise would aggravate the illness of the patients.
This was the third time CT had accompanied his mother.
She covered her head with a silk scarf; her once luscious hair had dropped in clumps and what was left on her head were stray strands that held on stubbornly and defiantly.
She used to be matronly and round but had lost a lot of weight which showed on her gaunt face. She seemed half her size, bent and tired as she sat on the grey plastic chair in the waiting room. She had refused the wheel chair, preferring to walk slowly into the waiting area. She was always an independent woman, a trait that helped her raise four children single-handedly after her husband had died almost twenty-years ago. It was only better when CT her eldest son stopped school and started working after completing his A-Levels. After a few years working as a salesman, he decided to switch jobs and became a housing agent. CT worked hard and did well. His much better pay with commission made life even better for the family. It helped pay for the tertiary education of his two younger brothers and one younger sister.
All of them landed good jobs upon graduation and like the average Singaporean got married and soon had their own families. Mother was left to CT. Things worked out well and she retired as a school attendant.
At first it was just gastric pains. Mother had always had gastric pains, something which came from the irregular meals she had, working and bringing up her children.
Then she started losing a lot of weight. Initially, she was rather happy because she had always wanted to be slimmer but when the weight loss continued with no apparent reasons, CT began to worry. He only decided to accompany her to see a doctor when she fainted, once when he was at work and once just after she had finished cooking dinner.
CT knew what to expect. She would be giddy and nauseous, a natural reaction to chemotherapy, chemo he had now learnt to call it, as if the affectionate shortening of the name would make it less intimidating. Her hair began dropping, at first a few strands, then in clumps. He remembered that evening when he heard a stifled scream from the bathroom where Mother was taking a shower. He rushed to the door and knocked. She told him that nothing was wrong when he asked her what had happened. However, when she came out, he knew what had happened without her even telling him. She had tried to clear the evidence from the shower floor but seemed to have missed one of the sides, for there was a whole clump of hair. She didn’t explain anything to him but he knew.
Her immunity dropped and she started to have all kinds of skin infections. He brought her to see the doctor and they cleared with medication. Her appetite was greatly reduced and once she suddenly craved for bean curd and he had gone all the way to a favorite stall in Chinatown to buy her a bowl; she vomited everything after swallowing two mouthfuls greedily.
The worse was her depression. She tried to remain positive, preferring not to complain about her suffering but it all came out in her tempers. She woke up easily in the night and at the slightest noise.
Though all these, CT attended to her, telling himself to remain as optimistic as possible.
“Move in with me,” Cheng Wee was almost pleading.
“You know my situation. I can’t at this moment. I have to think about my mum.”
“Not now then when?” Cheng Wee tried to sound reasonable. He knew he didn’t want to get into another quarrel. When she is dead? She’s strong and healthy….won’t be soon, Cheng Wee almost said but bit his tongue. It would be too cruel and he knew that CT won’t be able to take it. He knew CT felt a deep responsibility for his mum and he understood, really he did.
“Be reasonable. You knew I had to take care of my mum when we began dating. It is easy for you because you live alone and your parents are in Malaysia. But not me….I have responsibilities.”
“All right. Forget that I even mentioned it. I don’t want to fight again.” Cheng Wee softened his tone as he moved forward to CT who was sitting on the edge of the dining table and embraced him. CT felt his body warmth and buried his face gratefully in his bosom. “Okay, let’s not fight,” he submitted willingly.
The funeral was simple but dignified. One or two of Mother’s ex-colleagues came. They were full of praise for her diligence and helpfulness when she was still with the school. But she had retired ten years ago and memories are short especially in the kind of society Singapore has become. So it was mostly, CT’s colleagues and those of his siblings. She was cremated in Mount Vernon and her ashes kept in a columbarium there.
Although everyone knew that CT could now move on, a new problem existed for him: he had been so used to having Mother around that now there was a gaping hole in his life. In actual fact, he wasn’t quite sure how to move on.
Should he now at fifty be looking for someone to fill his life? Cheng Wee, his last real relationship had given up on him and moved on. Although the split was amicable, and at first they still contacted each other as friends, the distance increased as the months passed by and from the last that he heard, Cheng Wee was in Beijing as the news correspondent there.
Should he just forget about it and concentrate on his career which had in the past year slowed down somewhat? But what about the loneliness he felt at the end of each day? He felt that he wanted to have someone to come home to, someone to talk to, someone to cuddle with, someone in whose arms he’d fall asleep in. It was a dream relationship, he knew, quite unreal as his skeptical side told him. “But I can dream, can’t I?” he told himself.
Simon D’Silva was a young Sri Lankan in his twenties the company had employed. CT was supposed to show him the ropes. Simon, bright eyed and eager like any new comer would be, was a young graduate from Canada. He had been in banking for about two years and didn’t quite like it so decided to try real estate which he heard was an exciting job. He thought he would enjoy running around showing homes to interested buyers since he liked talking to people.
When Simon was introduced to CT on his first day of work, the older man looked him up and down trying to size him up and generally to see what material he was having to work with. Simon was a healthy glowing chap. He had sharp facial features and wore glasses which made him look like a school boy. He was tall and well-built and dressed smartly. “Good looking chap,” CT told himself. Simon appeared confident and although, he didn’t say much, it was probably because of caution that came with a lack of familiarity.
CT felt that he might possibly grow to like this well-mannered young man with a slight foreign accent.
The company was employed to promote and sell a condominium in outskirts of Sembawang. It was not really an easy job because the property was not really near town. The nearest train was in the neighboring Yishun. There were bus stops nearby but the buses really didn’t go to many places in Singapore. It was a high end property that was reasonably priced and targeted at young professionals who most likely owned cars. The selling points were the full condominium facilities which included three swimming pools, a gymnasium in a club house and three lovely landscaped gardens. All these were only possible because land was plentiful and relatively cheaper because of its distance from the city. However, at the present moment the development work was still not completed and there was only the showroom. The wonderful living environment of the development could only be left to the imagination of the prospective buyers and the glib tongues of the estate agents.
CT observed that Simon had the gift of the gab. On top of his good command of the language in spite of his accent, it was his ability to paint a mental picture of the tropical paradise, the childlike lift in his voice, the earnestness on his handsome face that excited the buyers. All CT had to do to mentor this young man was the more technical part of the work, working out the cost, the discounts possible, the housing loans available and the documentation should there be a closing of the deal.
The two men, mentor and mentee, grew very close during the period in Sembawang. The younger man was respectful and appreciative of the guidance and help the older man gave him and the older man liked having someone to look out for. Even after Sembawang, when the two men had gone to different projects and hardly met each other at work, they still met up for dinner or drinks after work and on weekends.
They both liked to eat roti prata, a local favorite of egg flour pancake served and eaten with rich and spicy curry. And they loved to drink Teh Tarik, hot fragrant milk tea topped with a layer of froth created through the pouring of tea from one container to another through an accurate pulling and dropping action.
There was a shop which they frequented just a little off the main road at Upper Thomson which served the best roti prata and Teh Tarik in Singapore or so the two men would claim to their friends and to each other. They would sit al fresco on the corridor just outside the shop often after twelve midnight and eat their delicious supper as they watched the night birds from all over Singapore drive in for a night cap.
Sometimes, they talked about work but often about each other. Although Simon had been staying away from his homeland for long periods in recent years, he still missed home as any young man away from parents, relatives and friends would. He would talk about home ranging from politics to economics to the troubles there. But it was when he started talking about the beauty of his homeland and the family and friends he had left behind that one could sense the strong feelings this young man had for it. CT would always listen attentive to him, sitting back relaxed on the grey plastic chair, intermittently taking slips from the glass of tea on the table. In the light of the naked fluorescent tube above, the young man looked even more charming to CT.
Simon on the other hand, enjoyed the attention that his mentor, this older man had lavished on him. He liked the fact that CT was always attentive, his eyes following his facial expressiveness and earnest hand gestures with interest and adoration. In a land where he was seen often as a foreigner, the friendship which CT offered him was appreciated and most valuable.
Mutual liking between the two men was obvious. Even their colleagues saw that the two were a very good pair and their immediate boss even tried to put them together whenever possible because according to him, good chemistry would lead to good things.
In late August, the two men thought of taking a short break and driving to Malacca. They would go in Simon’s car and agreed to take turns to drive there. The three to four hour drive north from Singapore was pleasant. They managed to arrive at the hotel just before lunch and spent the afternoon walking around the streets of the charming old town. They had dinner at Jonker Street that night and decided to have after dinner drinks at the Hard Rock Café just beside the river at the head of Jonker.
They were a bit tipsy when they left Hard Rock a little after midnight. The walk back to the hotel which was a little off the town center sobered them a little.
CT watched Simon undress. “Is it okay if I strip to my underwear?” Simon asked CT, not wanting to offend the older man. “I usually walk around like that at home.”
CT nodded. “No problems with me,” said the older man who was lying in bed propped up against the headrest, “I do that myself on hotter nights. After my mum passed away, I lived alone so it really doesn’t matter.”
Simon was down to his briefs in no time. CT realized that Simon was not only good looking with nice facial features, he also had a beautiful young sculpted body. He was slim and taut with youth, his skin fair and unblemished in the warm light of the hotel room. His strong arms were toned and his chest broad and firm just above a tight stomach. Although Simon would not be considered hairy, his chest was covered with soft fine hair which was only slightly visible under the hotel room light. CT couldn’t take his eyes off this Adonis though he knew that it was rude to stare. He felt himself responding to the visual fantasy before his eyes.
The young man turned the lights down low and got into bed. Instead of keeping to his side, he moved his body up close to CT and embraced the older man. CT wasn’t quite expecting this and jumped a little.
“Don’t worry, CT. It’s what I want,” the young man whispered into his ears. “I’m falling in love with you.”
“But..” CT couldn’t carry on because Simon’s lips were already pursed against his tightly and passionately.
His heart was pounding rapidly. This wasn’t how he expected it to turn out. Or was it? What could two men who were very close to each other, going on a holiday together, staying in the same room, sharing the same bed, both a little tipsy end up doing? He decided not to think too much and just go with the flow of things.
Waking up in the arms of someone you love is a wonderful experience. CT opened his eyes and saw Simon’s handsome face next to his. Relaxed and deep in sleep, he looked like an angel, CT told himself. He realized that his arms were firming wound around Simon’s body in a firm embrace and he could feel the young man’s deep breathing and regular heartbeat.
Is this love? I’ve not felt so good since…well since, Cheng Wee. Can it be so easy? I really didn’t have to do anything. Simon practically threw himself at me. CT smiled to himself. I’m old enough to be his father. Would others think that I’m a cradle snatcher or worse a pedophile? Did I expect it all to end like this when I suggested the holiday? After all, I was the one who asked him to come. Had I been subconsciously planning it all? That would be despicable on my part.
CT didn’t want to wake Simon so he just lay there thinking. He looked at the beautiful young face again and once again felt an embarrassing reaction.
Simon opened his eyes. “Mmmm, good morning dear.” The voice was still filled with sleepiness but Simon pushed his groin closer to CT and puckered his lips for a kiss.
It was only seven in the morning. The sun had arisen and the city of Malacca was slowly coming alive. The August morning sun was soft and shone in through the thin day curtains. It was hot outside but inside the room, it was pleasantly cool with the air conditioning. Simon got up and pulled the curtains open. He didn’t seem to bother that he had no clothes on and might be seen by the outside world.
“When did this begin for you?” CT asked from the bed without getting up.
“My being gay or my loving you?” There was no embarrassment in the tone of the young man.
“Erh, maybe both?” CT laughed.
“Well, I knew that I am gay at around eleven or twelve….you know the age when you become interested sexually in another person? While all my friends in the boys’ school were talking about girls, I just wasn’t interested. I remember that one of my classmates who was sitting in front of me brought a pornographic magazine to school and flashed it in my face when I wasn’t expecting it. It had a beautiful actress with big boobs, totally naked with her legs wide open. He laughed at my expression when I almost screamed in shock. Yes, it was shock more than lust. After that, I thought about the whole incident and realized that perhaps there was something wrong with me.
“Sri Lanka is still a very conservative place so talking to anyone about it was out of the question. Fortunately, I was an avid reader and the internet was becoming very popular at that time. I decided to find out more about my situation. I spent many hours surfing and finding out information all the while keeping the secret to myself and even pretending to be excited by girls so that my friends and classmates would get off my back.
“Then I went to Canada. Going there to study opened up my world. Not only was there no discrimination against gay people there, I found that there were others just like me and I even joined a club with gays and lesbians. We were not actually activists or anything like that but just a group of like-minded people coming together for picnics, movies, talks, outings, you know…things like that?
“All these things couldn’t happen for me back home so after I got my degree, I decided not to go home although I missed my parents and friends and the rest is history because I came here.” Simon sighed as if he was relieved to have gotten through a boring tale re-told too many times. But CT was genuinely interested in what he was hearing. It was a world outside Singapore, outside his own boring life of sleepless nights and numbing days.
“And when and why did you fall in love…?” CT wanted to add ‘with me’ but left it out because it would have been too self-centered.
“Well….ahahaha,” Simon laughed, “that is another story.” Simon got into bed and snuggle up to CT. He kissed the older man on his lips and wound his arms around him…”That is another story.”
“It might have been love at first sight. I admit that it was most likely the physical part of it at first. I mean you are a most attractive man. I love the white hair at the side of your head. It makes you look distinguished.” Simon touched his temples playfully. “And I love your broad shoulders and you know you have a nice strong chest?” Simon landed a kiss on his bare skin.
“But well, when did it happen? I’m not quite sure but you know those days we spent in Sembawang? Yes, the ones you spent mentoring me. Well, I found myself looking forward to seeing you each day. In fact, I found myself going to work each day just to see you. So maybe that was when it started.
“And why? Why you of all people in the world? Well, I don’t really know….all I can say is why…why not you? I was wondering whether I was looking for a father figure but I’ve not been deprived of fatherly love. In fact, I’m closer to my father than my mother. Maybe I’m defying all the findings of research. Let’s just say, I just love you….no questions asked, no reasons available.”
“But you know my fears right? I’m not sure whether it will work out. I’m old enough to be your father. I don’t think others will look kindly on our relationship. On top of it being gay, which is not even acceptable here to begin with, we are having an October-April romance. I’m just afraid that there are just too many odds against us.”
“Well, look at this philosophically…who knows about tomorrow. Let’s just enjoy and cherish today. Don’t think too much about it. Let tomorrow take care of itself.”
The younger man appeared to be more confident than the older man but then it was obviously that both were very much in love with each other.
The first thing after they returned from Malacca was for Simon to move in to live together with CT.
It wasn’t that difficult because Simon didn’t really have that many things. He had rented the flat which was fully furnished and so all the major furnishings went back to the landlord who was really a nice old man who wished him well and smiled a knowing smile when he was introduced to CT. They didn’t even need a removal company to do the job. CT made two trips and all of Simon’s belongings were over.
Settling into life together was a bit surreal to CT. After Mother, he had been living alone; it took some adjusting to having another person around. Sometimes he would walk into his study to get a book, forgetting that there was somebody else around and would be a little surprised to find Simon sitting at his table writing something. Or sometimes, he would go into his kitchen about to prepare a simple meal but would find Simon there already fussing over the kitchen sink. Although all these take getting used to, CT was gratefully for the change which he felt was for the better.
There was another issue which surfaced in CT’s mind. Of course, there really isn’t any need to tell others that they were now a couple and living together. But he was so full of joy in having someone to share his life with, that if he didn’t share it, he felt like he would explode and his entire being shattered into joyful bits all over the floor.
Simon laughed when he heard this and promptly teased him about being too dramatic. But he added that it would be nice. First, they should perhaps bring their colleagues in on this. It won’t be difficult because according to Simon, he guessed they already had some idea. It surprised CT because he had always thought himself successfully closeted.
The couple decided that a nice way to come out to their colleagues would be for Simon to change his address in their company’s database which he promptly did. News travelled quite quickly and the couple was summoned to their boss’ office soon. Conrad, their boss congratulated them and asked them when it had happened. He was so happy for them and wished them well. Most of the other colleagues were similarly very happy for them although there were a couple of them who most likely were not comfortable with two men being together either because of their own beliefs or because of their religion. But they chose to keep it to themselves.
Coming out to CT’s siblings was a little trickier. He had never come out to any of them when they were single and now with their families, won’t it be even more awkward and difficult? His two brothers and younger sister would most likely not react too badly because he knew that they had always wanted the best for their beloved eldest brother. But their wives and children were different matters.
The plan was to wait for Christmas which was coming up in two months’ time. CT would invite them over for a family get-together and introduce Simon to them during the gathering. To ensure that they were not too shocked by the news, he decided that perhaps he should spread the news through the grapevine first.
Hui Ting, his sister was the closest to him. He had always felt that he could talk to her although she was six years his junior. He told her over the phone. There was silence over the other end for a while. “Thank you for telling me,” her tone was not patronizing but sincere. “Actually, I’ve some idea for some time already. I remember your friend, the one that you were very close to. I could tell that you were more than just very good friends.” CT knew that Hui Ting was referring to Cheng Wei. “We’re grateful that you have borne the burden of looking after Mum all these years. It’s about time you thought about yourself. Don’t worry too much about not being accepted by us. You’re our big brother who sacrificed yourself to put us through university. How can we turn against you when all you’re doing is to find your own happiness?”
The Christmas get-together turned out well. Even if there was any negative reaction to the couple, no one expressed it. In fact, everyone welcomed Simon by just treating him as part of the family. There was no sign at all of anything other than well-wishes.
It started off as just a loss of weight. But when he fainted in the bathroom one evening, CT knew that something was wrong. It brought back memories of Mother.
Simon had gone home to Colombo to visit his parents. He and CT had been together for five years. CT was unable to go with him because he had an important project to do. Simon had told his parents about CT and though they initially were not too happy about it, they relented and even came to Singapore to visit. CT hosted them the way he would family. Initially, it was a bit funny, a rather awkward situation when they realized that their son’s partner was a year older than them. But CT’s warmth and unassuming personality won the day and they were quite happy that their youngest son had found someone to take care of him.
CT contacted the specialist who was looking after his mother and went immediately for a checkup. By the time the result came out, Simon had returned from Sri Lanka.
Simon was there when Professor Yap told them the results of the biopsy. It was stomach cancer and didn’t look good; the recommendation was to go for chemotherapy. “I’m sure you are quite familiar with the side effects,” Prof Yap spoke in a steady voice of an oncologist who was very experienced in the field. “It was unfortunate that treatment didn’t work with her. There is hope that it will be different for you. At least we have discovered it much earlier than in your mum’s case.”
Simon took the wheels on the way home. CT didn’t feel like talking so Simon just put The Greatest Hits of Simon and Garfunkel in the CD player.
Like a bridge over troubled waters,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled waters,
I will lay me down.
The soothing strains and the mellifluous voice filled the car. CT closed his eyes as the car rumbled along. He never thought that in the midst of his happy life these five years, that a familiar enemy was just lurking in the dark, waiting to strike. He should have been more cautious about things working out so well, about being too happy and blissful.
Simon refused to leave CT: he told CT just as much of his resolution. He stood by him steadfastly as he watched him suffer through the course of chemotherapy. He was there when his hair fell in clumps. He was there when CT felt nauseous after each visit to the hospital and was tired and weak for a couple of days as the toxins worked through his body, killing the cancer cells but at the same time killing him bit by bit too. And he was there, bravely and patiently tending to him when he vomited and when he lost his temper at the smallest of things.
And through it all, Simon would hold him tightly, embracing his weak body. Even in the worse moments of his pain and suffering, CT had the assurance that Simon would never leave him. And he knew that he could go on as long as he felt Simon’s strong loving arms around him.
The chemotherapy stopped after half a year. Prof Yap was glad that it was in remission. How long will it last? Would it come back even worse? Prof Yap told CT that there was really no guarantee of anything and suggested that maybe he could go away for a holiday before the next checkup. A cheerful and positive spirit was always helpful.
Conrad was very good. He had reduced Simon’s workload and let him work flexi-time so that he could look after CT better. The couple decided to go to Sydney for a holiday. They decided to skip the city because they had both been there before, and seriously a crowded city may not be the best choice for CT. Instead, they went up to the Blue Mountains just outside the city. The fresh mountain air would be good for CT.
Simon and CT sat in the small garden of the family owned lodging. The sunset had cast a golden blush over the bluish hue of the mountains in front of them. Although winters in Sydney could be terribly cold especially here in the mountains, CT felt strangely warm in Simon’s embrace.
Sunsets in winter can be depressingly short. It would soon be dark but they were not afraid as long as they had each other. They sat quietly without talking, just enjoying each other’s presence, grateful for the moment and very aware of each other’s steady breathing and regular heartbeat. Now and again, Simon would plant a kiss on CT’s face and he would respond by snuggling even deeper into him. Closing his eyes, he savored the comfortingly strong smell of Simon’s presence and at that moment, all troubles were forgotten. All that remained were two hearts beating in harmony and two souls becoming one. And the glorious beauty of the sunset before their eyes.