Looking back on my time in Singapore, nothing really stands out. I remember it being expensive. The exchange rate was negligible and worse yet if you were traveling with money from the region. Which makes it a bit of a game, trying to save money, to find the cheapest hawker centers, to discover free events. I remember the botanic gardens being a cheap, if not free, activity. And I remember the city being “super modern,” wildly technological. Each night, at the waterfront, they’d light up a stretch of trees. And not like Christmas season. More like an EDM show: colors strobing vividly, fluorescently; music setting an ambiance paradoxically upbeat and mellow. On the second night I was there the city hosted its annual festival of lights. The national galleries were open to the public. Animated projections played across the sides of the buildings; each one paired with a soundtrack and a collage of colored lights. It was pretty spectacular, and certainly kept with the K-Pop/EDM vibe of the city. But it somehow, despite its remarkability, felt normal. It didn’t stand out. It was what you expected to find in a city-state like Singapore.
What really stands out when I think about Singapore, though, (and this is just about the only thing) is this lady I met on the metro.
She was from Cameroon. French was her first language, Arabic her second, English her third. She previously lived in Dubai. She worked as a hairstylist. She was always loudly chomping gum. She was thick-set to the point of being overweight. She had skin like dark chocolate, glossy and smooth. She was tired of the U.A.E. She wanted a new life.
She chose Singapore.
“Are you hungry?” she asked me.
I nodded meekly. I was hungry, but the question struck me as odd.
Do you want to join me?”
“Um,” was all I could muster, for even though I was hungry I was supposed to be going to the museum.
“There’s a cheap center around here. It’s all Indian and Pakistani shops, lots of rice dishes and curries, nice desserts, flaky naan,” she said, sliding into the pause with mouth-watering poise.
“Okay, sure,” I said, my stomach winning out.
We arrived at the hawker center shortly after: it was above one of the MRT stops. We scoped the stalls, doing the customary round of inspection, before settling on a shop specializing in Punjabi cuisine.
She ordered the lamb biryani; I had the matar paneer; we split three orders of naan. The food was solid, nothing outstanding but definitely edible. The spice was appropriate, but the peas were not as fresh as they could’ve been: either they came frozen or they had sat too long in the heat. The paneer was by turns otherworldly and vomit-inducing: some pieces tasted as they should while others streaked your tongue with a curdled paste as if a snail had just slid across it. The naan was flaky as advertised. It was the best part by far.
The conversation wasn’t bad either. We discussed life in Cameroon: how much (if at all) Boko Haram affected her daily life there, the food, Samuel Eto’o and Joel Embiid. We discussed life in Dubai: whether or not she found it oppressive, how brilliant and mesmerizing the buildings really were, the heat. We discussed life in Singapore: affluence, English, technology. We talked about traveling: our favorite places, our favorite foods, our best memories. Afterwards, we grabbed a beer.
We walked back to the subway station. I was weightless. As sometimes happens, that one beer was enough. My cheeks stretched smilingly taut; a giggly levity taking over.
It was around 7:00pm. The night was getting on and I had no plans.
“What’s next?” I asked her.
“Wine and a park?” she replied.
“Two bottles or one?” I inquired.
“Two,” we agreed.
The park was a massive pasture of green. There were hardly any trees and almost no flowers. There were a few benches. White paint marked what used to be a soccer field. The neighborhood around it had the feel of a city’s outskirts—the edge where urban tech meets decay and nothingness.
We sat down in the grass and opened the first bottle: a middling red, Pinot Noir. We passed it back and forth, laughing at the spontaneity of it all. We talked in between sips, letting the topics come and go. As the sky darkened, we searched for stars. There were none, but the moon was waxing its way to full.
We sat there like this, passing the bottle, for roughly an hour. We had made a pretty sizable dent in the thing and were starting to feel the effects. We were laughy and sleepy, philosophical and sarcastic, loopy and loony.
A man approached us. He was Singaporean and young. He carried a ukulele on his back like a quiver.
“Can I join you?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said and shrugged my shoulders.
She handed him the bottle of wine.
“Want some?” she asked.
He grabbed the bottle and heartily swallowed down as much as he could.
“What’s your name?” I asked in an attempt at conversation.
“Ben,” he said. “And yours?”
“Jerry,” I said. (I felt like lying.)
He repeated the name and looked at my companion.
She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, I said: “Elaine. Her name’s Elaine.” (Two lies are better than one.)
He repeated her name and unstrung his ukulele. I grabbed the second bottle of wine and opened it: It was a drier but still-too-sweet Cabernet. I took a sip and let the buzz roll over me. I handed it to the lady from Cameroon. She drank and passed it to Ben. He set his instrument down and sipped the wine. It came back to me and the process started again.
Ben started strumming again; he was toying with the idea of singing. I lay in the grass with the woman, looking up at the sky, extraordinarily mellow. We had been positioned this way for about twenty minutes when the woman sat up and said:
“I want to hear a song. I want you to sing me a song.”
She was looking at me.
“What song?” I asked.
“‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’” she said.
“By Oasis?” I blurted, taken aback.
Do you know that one?” I asked Ben, expecting him to say no.
He nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Why not.”
Ben started playing the opening riff. I cleared my throat and began singing: “Slip inside the eye of your mind…”
I sang the song through with only one mistake. By the end, I was smiling. My palms were clammy and the area under my arms was sweaty. The woman clapped loudly and the man wolf whistled. We all had a laugh and passed around the wine.
We spent the rest of the night in high spirits, drinking the last of the wine, enjoying the good weather and the beachy chords of the ukulele.
At around one-in-the-morning, we decided to leave. I walked the woman home and hugged her good-night at the entrance to her hostel. She smiled, kissed me on the cheek. “Good night,” she said.
“Night,” I said and I walked the fifteen minutes back to my hostel.
When I woke up in the morning, I realized my debit card was missing.
I crawled along the floor of my dormitory searching; tossing things one-by-one out of my bag in vain. I ran up and down, out and around, asking everyone I met if they’d seen an American debit card. No one had seen anything.
I rifled through my wallet again. Then my pockets. Then my wallet again.
It wasn’t there; I was starting to panic.
I pulled out my laptop and logged into my bank account. I checked the transactions to see if someone had used my card at all. There was a $700 purchase from 3:00 this morning. I clicked on the details: it was to some third-party distributor.
I called the company’s number; they sold cheap flights to the Pacific islands.
I dropped my phone and smiled, envisioning a dark-skinned woman and a young, bronzed-skin ukulelist sharing a cocktail on a beach in some tropical paradise. Don’t look back in anger, I thought. What’s done is done.
I called my bank and reported my card stolen. They would conduct an investigation and return the pilfered funds to my account. In the meantime, they would send me a new card.
I thanked them.
I hope my one-day friend and thief is enjoying her life in the Pacific if she ever made it there. And the ukulelist too.
TL Clemens is a local of WNY. His interests include avoiding the cold, chasing the sun, and finding ways to make snow fun. He is a world traveler and a proud member of the LGBTQIA community.