Alex was her problem, two ways. One, her problem to supervise in Singapore, and two, her problem in that she’d asked for him, or rather, someone like him, to address the stumblings of previous visits. The authors the State Department had sent before had been old. They were hard to hear and hard to please and did not like visiting schoolchildren. Grace had asked her boss to ask Washington for people more youthful, and State had sent a series of four very young authors. But they almost all had Asian names. Two were Korean American and one was Japanese American. Only the fourth was white, and he was tattooed. The expatriates who attended the first three readings hadn’t seemed to mind, but the Singaporeans felt insulted, she knew. She could see their indignation without even having to read the DID YOU ENJOY THIS ‘TRIP’ TO THE UNITED STATES? comment cards that she collected after each event. Who are Americans to think that Singapore needs to discover Asian authors, is what the Singaporeans thought. They had perfectly fine Asian authors here, rather than these pretenders who couldn’t even speak anything but broad, flat American English.
And now, this mat salleh with the tattoos, one local man said to Grace afterwards, and then shook his head and walked away.
It was an issue, yes. The tattoos. But the bigger issue, Grace thought, was that the man had even used the pejorative with her, with Grace—a Singaporean with roots in China, but in that room, that night, a representative of the United States. Mat salleh: a kind of pidgin Malay for mad sailor, mad as in red-faced and sunburned, mad as in crazy to be out in the sun. Mad as in that’s exactly what this young tattooed author was, angry at things Grace could understand but not control, like the heat, and angry at things she did not understand and she could not control, like Orchard Street. Three Cartier stores in two blocks is obscene, he said. He was not an author but a writer. He wanted to see not this simulacrum of a city but the real Singapore.
He might not ever get to see the real Singapore, her boss said, “But he sure as hell is going to taste it.”
Grace’s boss had a strange name, Jack Fountain, and an easy job, cultural attaché. The attaché’s duties were few; Jack’s favorite was escorting visiting artists. Of late, these artists had all been authors. With the budget cuts, they were the cheapest. They required no costumes or lighting or fancy auditoriums. They hardly required payment. You stood them up in front of an audience and they read, and then they posed for pictures and then they flew home.
On the way to the airport, however, Jack always insisted they stop for durian. Not because he liked what Singaporeans called “the king of fruits,” but because he liked taking pictures of visitors taking their first bite. The spiny, head-sized fruits were very much to Americans’ dislike. The smell was like “rotting clothes” or “rotting flesh,” or so visitors described it, which always seemed odd to Grace: America was the country that enjoyed “hot dogs,” which the embassy dutifully served each year at a July party. Hot dogs smelled like their name. And durian, unlike hot dogs, looked like a food that would be appropriate to eat, not to mention display—at least before it was cut open. Jack loved that moment, loved it so much he refused to believe durian was seasonal, that it couldn’t be had throughout the year. “There’s only one season here, summer,” he would say.
There wasn’t, but it was summer now, durian was available, and—
“Listen,” Jack said. “I can’t swing it tonight. I’ll need you to do the drive, the durian, the photo, the airport.”
“This is okay,” Grace said.
“You’re so funny,” Jack said.
Jack was funny, in that other sense of the word Grace was learning (from Jack, who used it for people like Alex). It meant odd, could mean inscrutable, or even ill. It was hard to say. Just as it was often hard to say if Jack was joking. She had not had this problem with Americans before. It was very easy to tell when they were joking; they laughed first, they laughed for you. They laughed all the time.
But Mr. Fountain—who said to call him Jack, which Grace had been experimenting with, unpleasantly—smiled. He didn’t laugh. “And,” he said, “feel free”—a phrase Americans used widely, but only with regard to the most minor things—“to come in late tomorrow.”
That this sentence was intended to be a kindness, a small gift, Grace understood, but disliked. It felt dishonest, dishonorable, almost a punishment. She did not explain this to him, she did not want him to think she misunderstood. She did not want him to say, again, that Grace spoke English perfectly, which may also have been a kind of joke: she had been born and raised in Singapore; English was (along with Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) the official language. But it was also true that her family was Chinese, and that she had just returned from four years of college in China, where she spoke Mandarin exclusively and, up until the very end, well.
‘Speaking of,’ Jack said. ‘Take a hearse tonight.’
Then it was back to Singapore, back to English—and Singlish, too, of course. But Singlish was for friends, the streets, texting, and capital-E English was for business, for government, for getting ahead. And so, despite Jack’s assurances, she took time with English now, not so much relearning the language as reacquainting herself with it, the shape of its words, the slope of its sentences. She had even signed up for a writing class at night. It wasn’t great, but the bigger mistake was that she had told Jack about it.
“And your class!” Jack said. “The library cancelled, right? Take this Alex person there, pre-durian!”
She thought. It could be a joke. The class was nowhere near the embassy or the sparkling stores of Orchard Street. The building, a community center, was un-air-conditioned, and grease from the food stalls in the hawker center nearby hung in the air like mist. Some nights, no students came. Some nights, the teacher did not come. But there were actual desks, a chalkboard, a teacher who refused bribes, and on the wall, posters of authors. Shakespeare. Toni Morrison. John F. Kennedy, whom Jack once told her went by ‘Jack,’ which was almost certainly a joke.
“I know this one has kept you busy,” Jack said; he had not stopped talking. She wondered what she had missed. “Next time,” he said, “we’ll specify girls. Women! No boys. Boys are trouble.” He smiled. He stood. She stood. He bowed slightly. She did not. Anything unspoken she understood perfectly well.
“Speaking of,” Jack said. “Take a hearse tonight.”
A hearse. That had been a very confusing, and troubling, Google research session for what turned out to be the nickname (just Jack’s?) for the embassy’s bulletproof sedans. They had windshields an inch thick and the doors took two people to close. Alex, exasperated—why had the library cancelled? Where was her boss? Why did they have to get durian? Where were they going, really?—asked why.
“Because it is so heavy,” Grace said.
“No,” Alex said, “why are we in this tank? Is there a problem?”
“No,” Grace said. A message had come from Washington ordering all embassies, consulates, and Presence Posts in Zone 14 to restrict urban travel for the next 48 hours, and to take precautions if such travel was necessary.
“‘Problem, what problem? Everything’s fine. We’re just rolling in the armored car because we like the look,’” Alex said. “Fine. Here’s the problem. You know what the entry card at the airport says, the little slip you fill out? Or maybe it’s just Americans who get it. ‘DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS,’ it says, all caps, like a text from your mom.” He leaned forward to peer through the windshield. “This is a joke.”
Everything, everywhere, smelled of smoke, of fire, but distantly, as if the far reaches of the paperwhite sky were curling into flame.
She had introduced Alex to her teacher, the teacher had introduced Alex to the class. Then the teacher left to smoke. But that wasn’t what distracted Grace. Alex had. What he read had: everything, everywhere…. Blame him. For “paperwhite,” for “curling,” for all those commas, for writing so boring her mind drifted. But blame forest fires, not the absent teacher, for the smoke. In Singapore, where it might rain daily, it had not rained for a week, and across in Sumatra, forests were burning. Without rain, the fires raged on; without rain, the smoke seeped into every corner of life on the island. Many in class tonight were wearing the paper hospital masks Americans found so frightening—even Alex had asked if there was “some kind of epidemic going on”—and the class was less than half full. She’d kept a careful count in her notebook. “State likes reports and reports love numbers,” Jack always said.
So: 6 Chinese, 2 Malay, 1 Tamil. But that was just for her own accounting; she’d clean it up later for Jack, who was often confused when she described things in terms of race. “Race doesn’t matter,” he’d said to her more than once, which was odd for an American to say.
Everything, everywhere, smelled of smoke, of fire, but distantly, as if the far reaches of the paperwhite sky were curling curled into flame.
Better. She’d written down Alex’s first line—she’d meant to transcribe all that he read—but then found she couldn’t go on to the second sentence without editing the first. Paperwhite paperwhite. She said it to herself, silently, but moved her lips because she realized that’s what she liked about this compound word (she liked compound, too), the way it made your lips beat out all those syllables, made you feel you’d accomplished a whole conversation with just the one word. Paperwhite. They wrote and read “white papers” at the embassy all the time. But this was different. An adjective. And he’d used it to describe—she started listening again to see if she could tell. Alex was talking about eggs now; someone—two people—making eggs. She wrote down egg and looked at it. It was odd how English could oversimplify things. Just three squiggles for something so complex. Here, as was often the case, Mandarin seemed more appropriate to the task: 鸡蛋.
Then, all around her, light clapping. Far too soon for Alex to be done, or she had completely lost track of time. Grace quickly stood, embarrassed, and then quickly sat, even more embarrassed. The teacher, whom she had not noticed returning, looked at her anxiously.
“I ask the group for questions?” the teacher asked Grace. “Can or not?”
“Whatever the boss says,” Alex said, though no one was looking at him.
“The boss says okay,” Grace said, to be funny. The teacher, and students, looked panicked. “Please,” Grace said. “I did not mean to interrupt. The group should please ask questions.”
And no one did.
In the car after, Alex said he’d been invited to a “poetry slam” at a coffeehouse. His flight wasn’t until 1 a.m. He didn’t care about dinner. He wasn’t demanding, hadn’t demanded anything the whole damn trip, but he was going to make this one demand, okay? He wanted to go.
“Where is the coffeehouse?” she asked, not so she could take him there, but so she could explain why it was not possible.
“I can go on my own,” he said. “Your advanced nation is light years ahead with public transit and all that.”
That Alex used light years, a beautiful English term she’d almost only ever encountered in print, had a strange effect on her, not unlike the physics, so far as she understood them, of light years themselves.
“I will give you a ride,” Grace said.
Alex didn’t believe Grace “could, would, or should” drive him to the coffeehouse, as it was located in Geylang, which Google had told him was a “red-light district.” He then told Grace what this meant. “It’s not like there’s a lot of red lights there,” Alex began.
“I know,” Grace said, since she did. She didn’t tell Alex what else she knew, which was that red lights were optional when in the bulletproof sedan. Dark and boxy, the car attracted attention, including from the police.
“All right,” Alex said, “I’m sure you have your orders. But when we get there, you don’t have to come in.”
“I want to,” Grace said—automatically, but then rewound, listened. Three little words.
“Why? Are you going censor me?” Alex asked.
“No,” Grace said. She wished she could turn to look at him, but driving the sedan took her entire focus. Everyone was looking at them, she was sure. And saw what? She had on a black suit (the American flag lapel pin safely, for now, in a pocket), black prescriptionless glasses, red lipstick. Alex had on the same outfit he’d worn the whole trip, the same thin red beard. Those arms (she’d sought a word with her dictionary-thesaurus app, found “ropy”). That hat (which the heat had finally forced him to remove).
“Because that’s a problem here,” Alex said. “We got that whole rundown at the State Department.”
“Singapore is not like the U.S.,” Grace said. This was a line of Jack’s, the first line of yet another standard speech, one he would give newly arrived visitors in the privacy of his office. Grace found it handy to repeat the line, but not the whole speech. Because what more needed to be said? And because when Jack said it, he meant that the U.S. was better.
“I’m getting a lot of heat on social media, you know, for coming,” Alex said.
Her mother and father did not like when she worked events at night. Not because the longer hours did not result in more pay (although they would have been upset about that, if they knew), but because it was inappropriate. A young woman, 23, driving strangers around Singapore after dark? Couldn’t they find a man to do this job? Why wasn’t Grace doing visas, which mattered? Why wasn’t she married? Why wasn’t she dating? Why had she broken up with the boy in China, so promising? Why did Grace want her parents to call her “Grace” now? What was wrong with her Chinese name?
It wasn’t until Alex spoke again—“Do I make you nervous?”—that Grace realized she hadn’t replied to his previous comment.
She thought of Jack, decided to smile. “No,” she said.
“Because I’m about to make you very nervous,” Alex said, and jumped out of the car.
Her writing teacher had told her to notice details, to take mental snapshots, because you never knew what was going to be important, what was going to spark a story.
And so she noticed that, after all their talk of a red light district, they were stopped at a red light. And that as Alex turned away from her, bent and strained against the door, his shirt—that tight t-shirt, which he’d been advised against—rose, and his pants—skinny jeans—puckered, she was able to glimpse his underwear, which was a deep, blood red. And that the corner establishment he ran into was fronted by a red neon façade, and that its name, or sales pitch, or both, was four English words—TWO SPACESHIPS COLLIDING CUCUMBER—which may have seemed exuberantly arbitrary to Alex but had clearly been chosen with great care. Either way, it was known—to Grace, anyway—as a place that drew Americans.
She watched Alex run, watched him leave the heavy door wide open, watched a scooter slaloming through traffic slam right into it and crumple, bleeding, to the street. Red.
More red lights, and blue, as the police arrived. One minute, four cruisers. Three more policemen, plainclothed, emerged from the crowd. It was one of these officers who spoke to her while the bleeding man was handcuffed and his scooter rolled away.
“Idiot,” the policeman, ethnic Chinese, said, but he looked toward the coffeehouse. Another man got into the embassy’s sedan, honked the horn, and with the help of a police vehicle a third the sedan’s size, nosed the bulletproof car through the crowd and out of sight.
The “Incident Procedures”—which were detailed in a (red) sticker right on the dash—e-SCAPE: Survey, Contact, Assess, Prepare, Extraction—only said to contact local officials after the embassy had been contacted and instructions received.
But Grace was busy surveying something else. Alex had entered a brothel. It was labeled a coffeehouse, and Alex had said he’d been invited to read at a coffeehouse, but couldn’t he see that this building—with all its neon, with that name, with the two men idly standing by the door, was not a coffeehouse?
Maybe not. Maybe he thought, like Jack seemed to think, that the Geylang district was simply another of Singapore’s tourist attractions, that going there to sample durian and “see the sights” as Jack put it, was no different than gliding through Westernland at Tokyo Disney.
“Your boyfriend is all busy, miss,” said the man to her right as she approached the door. She ignored him, and stepped in. Blink. It took her a moment to adjust to the darkness of the coffeehouse. And once she had adjusted, it took her a moment to adjust to the fact that it looked like just that—a coffeehouse. With a little stage down at the end. Upon which Alex was sitting, examining papers unfolded from a pocket.
“I want to say a few things first,” Alex said.
Grace spoke very good English; she was poised, professional; when Jack, her boss, had found himself in Geylang, in the wrong place in Geylang, one week after his arrival in-country, he had called her, not the embassy, but Grace, not contract security, not the Marines, not the local police, and she had come and solved it. It had only taken one freshly washed, starched and ironed US$100 bill and a fake business card, but Jack had been extraordinarily grateful. Grace had made the girl—and she was very definitely a girl—go away, and the girl’s minder (Grace had searched through alternatives later before settling on this English word to tag and store the memory) go away, and she’d made the pictures go away.
They never spoke of it after. They didn’t have to. Did her boss still go out in Geylang? Grace didn’t think so, but part of her wondered now, in the coffeehouse, if Jack might suddenly stride in. That made her nervous: then Grace would be the one who had to do the explaining.
Everyone was looking at Alex, but not expectantly. The coffeehouse was the brothel’s waiting room, where services were negotiated. If a mat salleh wanted to sit on a stage where the girl usually sat, so be it. Mat sallehs were, by definition, crazy. And also by definition, they never lasted long: it was too hot for them.
Grace went up to Alex. A man at a table clicked his tongue—once, twice.
“It is time to go home,” said Grace.
“I haven’t even started yet,” said Alex.
“What you told me,” Grace said, “this was not true.” Americans liked this, blunt talk. Or: they didn’t like being spoken to bluntly. But they did like blunt talk.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said. In American English, this often did not mean that the speaker was sorry. It meant that the speaker was sorry for you. “I thought I said I was doing a reading—”
“You said you were invited by a student to do a reading in a coffeehouse,” Grace said.
“This is a coffeehouse,” Alex said, and laughed.
“This is a place where girls work,” Grace said.
Alex said nothing.
“And no student invited you.”
Alex said nothing.
“How much have you paid them so far?” Grace said. The present, or perhaps past, perfect continuous? In Mandarin, no confusion. In Mandarin, no past tense. In Mandarin, context was all.
“I didn’t pay them anything,” Alex said.
“How much was the coffee?” Grace said.
“$40,” Alex mumbled. “U.S.”
Grace nodded and looked around the room.
Let the mat salleh sit on the whore’s stool in the salon while he drinks his beer: that was what they thought. If he speaks—if he reads something aloud—so much the better. Americans are funny.
“Can I at least read what I was going to read?” Alex said.
“No,” Grace said.
“Please,” said a voice behind her, rich, low, round. His face was Chinese, but he had a deep American accent, which may have been where he’d gotten his height as well. “I want to hear the story.”
Alex smiled at Grace.
“One minute,” said Grace.
“I don’t want to eat durian,” said Alex. “So we can stay longer, because we don’t need to stop there.”
“Of course you want to eat durian!” the man said. “But first, we must hear you read. Is this a letter to your girlfriend?”
“I am not his girlfriend,” Grace said.
“Yes,” said Alex, and straightened up. “It’s called, ‘Saying Grace.’”
Once upon a time there was an island surrounded by
Alex started again.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a land of fantastical beasts
Alex stopped again. Grace, who had moved to the side but was still standing, looked at the papers he was holding. They’d been crumpled and uncrumpled, she saw. And the title was not “Saying Grace,” but rather, the title of the story he’d read earlier in her class.
“I think he is nervous in front of you,” the man said. He motioned for Grace to sit beside him, and then raised a hand. A waitress materialized; Grace shook her head. The man nodded. Grace sat.
“I can’t say I’ve liked Singapore,” Alex said, holding the pages, but staring at the audience. “It’s very hot, for one, all of the time, and it’s very expensive. There are a lot of rules—” A shout from the back of the room, possibly not directed at Alex, startled him. He started again. “But, you know what, there are a lot of rules everywhere. My girlfriend had a lot of rules.” He looked at Grace. “This is not my girlfriend. I wish she was, but—”
Grace very much wanted to hear what he was going to say next, but that was interrupted by someone new entering the room. Not from the street, but the rooms upstairs. Jack.
The open-air stall was hospital-bright, with multiple banks of fluorescent white lights illuminating piles of durian. Jack did not know there were various types of durian, that not all the fruit on display was ripe, that you could tell if it was ripe by looking at the stem. Jack only knew that it smelled terribly and tasted worse. He would pay the durian hawker for his fruit and then get his camera ready while the hawker went at the massive fruit with a small machete, parting its spiny, centimeters-thick husk in a way that was both forceful and delicate, all to expose the soft, pale pulpy mass at its center. This was what you ate. Grace had heard visitors describe it as looking like a vital organ and some were so specific to say it looked like a section of colon. Diseased. Foul descriptions abounded. The mass looked like a hairless rat. A rat fetus. Feces. And that it smelled like all these things.
Grace thought Alex knew he was being photographed, knew this was part of the gig, that everyone had a job here and his was to mug for the camera, look comically alarmed or squeamish as he prepared to take a bite and then took a bite. He was to do all these things gamely—a word Grace had been studying, monitoring to see if it could work at times like now, or not—and then he was to head off to the airport, pass through customs and immigration without fuss, and not mention there or thereafter that he’d attempted to do a reading in a brothel, or that that reading had been interrupted by, first, the arrival of the US Embassy’s deputy cultural attaché’s assistant, and second, by the deputy cultural attaché himself.
But at the brothel Jack had laughed—an actual laugh—and applauded Alex for “taking his art to the streets,” and then took them all out into the street, then down the street, then left down another, then left again, right, right—Jack certainly knew his way around Geylang—and parked them at the durian stand, where he bargained with the hawker and wound up paying double the rate for an inferior fruit.
No matter how much they’d prepared themselves—how terrible or beautiful their imaginings—the first bite always shocked. You could see it on their faces, behind their smiles, or in their smiles. (What was so readily forgotten: they always did smile.) Grace often wondered what shocked them most. Probably that their fears prior to that bite had focused on taste, the surely terrible taste, only to discover that what was most disconcerting was texture. It looked smooth and pudding-like—it was smooth and pudding-like—but it fell apart, liquefied in your mouth almost immediately, as though no longer able to sustain the ruse that it was solid, a fruit, matter, substantive, something edible.
Alex’s smile turned to a grimace, and Grace thought he would spit it up, but Jack, still snapping away, taunted him not to, and that worked, as taunting often did with Americans, particularly males, even the older ones. Alex spit nothing out, but keeping himself from doing so seemed to take his all, in that moment and in every moment after, from then until they said goodbye to him at the airport.
On the way home, Jack told Grace that she was fired. She should never have let the Singaporean authorities take the car. No sensitive documents had been confiscated, but a small metal pipe had been. Grace could either undergo a drug test—which they both knew she would pass, and which result they both knew wouldn’t matter—or she could resign. Now was the moment for blackmail, but Jack took that away, too—he was resigning as well. He didn’t have to say that the pipe had been his anymore than he had to say why he’d been in the brothel. What he didn’t know was how Grace had “tracked” him to the brothel, but then “nothing surprises me in this surveillance state anymore.” Grace didn’t know how to tell him it had been Alex’s doing, that his choosing that coffeehouse mere coincidence, that coincidences were not infrequent in a small island city-state—so small that it was less than half the size, in square kilometers, of Oklahoma City, which Jack, who had grown up there, always pointed out.
Paperwhite paperwhite paperwhite.
And she didn’t know how to write it up for class, either. She spent all day every day at the library the week following, leaving her family’s apartment each morning at the usual time—she had not told them about the firing yet—and going straight to the community center, working out what words she would share this week.
The man came into the brothel with a smile on his face
On the way to the airport, there was one final stop to make
Freedom is not
Freedom is being able to wave your national identity card at a crosswalk button and receive a longer walk signal if you are very old
Freedom is three official languages
Freedom is not something we put into words
Freedom is a durian
Freedom is half fish, half lion, the symbol of Singapore
Freedom is red
The lights above the fruit glowed brighter than the sun, but nothing like the sun—they were white, paperwhite, and when she went back to the stand by herself, later, the men did not mind nor even seem to notice as she stood there, looking at the lights. Paperwhite paperwhite paperwhite. She could say the word aloud or write it down. She could stand here forever, thinking it or not thinking it, and no one could take her anywhere, make her say anything, make her do anything, because she was in Singapore and she had done absolutely nothing wrong.
The cursor blinked and waited, and she with it, to see what word would come next.
Liam Callanan is the author of The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His most recent book is Listen & Other Stories. Visit liamcallanan.com for more.