Before You and I

New York
Picture taken by Denise Khng.

This story was written by Denise Khng, Literature + USP, Year 4.

WARNING: contains strong language.

I saw a picture of my ‘A’ Level art coursework again last night, lodged somewhere at the back of my Facebook photographs like a virtual stone: in sharp focus were the lurid kiss-themed monster chocolates laid out on a fuchsia silk-draped display, the children’s chandelier I bought from IKEA as a gimmicky distraction and the illustrated candy wrappers with the fake barcodes.  It took me back to the art room again and I thought of how much I miss you. Back when you knew nothing and wanted everything.

We were heroes in our own minds: a pack of courageous Avant-gardists held hostage against the bedrock of a pro-establishment system and its repulsive offer of the safe, the sound, the ordinary. To be ordinary was the bane of our work, our effort, our existence. We were young. And while we were still youthful, we could put in the bravest, strongest efforts of our lives. Get out. Escape. Be radical. Be extraordinary. Lead the lives we dreamt of every time the word “future” came into play. To be stuck with a briefcase and a suit would be a crime unforgivable to no one but us. Within the span of a year, we were slaves to our own grand ambitions. Make your mark. Don’t be invisible. Pragmatism is The Enemy. We’re in a room where anything is possible. Stop talking, keep starching that fabric, keep sculpting that hunk of polymer clay, keep experimenting with those pastels. Don’t stop working. Yes, Junyang, even if your nose is bleeding from thirty-six hours of being awake. Don’t bloody the floor too much. Keep working. We’ll get there. We’re damned if we’re still stuck here, trapped here. Stop talking, stop talking. Focus. We’ll get there. We’ll make it. Ten pm, we’ll scream out the corridor. Who’s up for that? Zaki? Amelia? It’s ten. We open the door and submit to organized rage. “FUUUCCCK…!” someone screams. Everybody else joins in. “FUCK YOOOUUU…!” The street is mercifully empty. Laughter breaks out in mid-scream. We’re crazy. God, we’re insane. We’re – Who wants dinner? Anything from Seven-Eleven? Ten-minute dinner run. We’re invincible. Keep going, keep going. Keep that radio station on. Uh, wait, The Ting Tings again? Shit. Keep going. We’ll get to New York eventually. New York City and its skyline and its lure of possibility. Like the sense of possibility in the art room, but only taller, sleeker, bigger – an entire city pulsating with possibility. Even the Statue of Liberty looks like the Virgin Mary. We need to get there. Get to a place where we could be anything we wanted to be. Because if we don’t, we’ll probably die.

Or so it had seemed.

The ‘A’ Levels were over quicker than we were prepared for. And when the results came, academic capitalism scattered us like a bunch of daisies. So in the eternally sunny Singaporean spring of 2010, we tasted isolation at its coldest: we either got straight A’s but no scholarships, or grades that couldn’t get us the places we wanted. “Crushed” doesn’t even come close to describing our broken selves. The drawings and paintings stopped for a while. We did part-time jobs that we never looked forward to and attended freshman classes with little interest. I broke a wineglass and got yelled at as a waitress. You developed hypothermia trekking in the jungle of Pulau Ubin during National Service, dropped out of law school in Exeter and sought solace in a string of failed relationships.

Nobody wound up in New York.

Not yet at least.

But as of now, about a third of you ended up in the UK – Lis, Han Hao, Junyang, Rachel. Zaki, you’ll still be heading to London in a couple of weeks. Althea, you were in Seoul a few months ago. Amelia, you’re in Massachusetts. And quite astoundingly, I’m in Amsterdam writing all this crap about you. We don’t seem to be doing too badly, do we? Globetrotting cosmopolitan-wannabes with the world at our feet.

Zaki, I met you last month after you wrapped up a circus acrobatics class. You looked like life steamrolled you over. And it sure as hell wasn’t from the acrobatics. Your pupils were smaller. Your eyebags were larger. And whenever you broke into a smile, the lines at the corners of your eyes creased subtly.

All your smiles look different now, damn it. Like you all can’t smile without visually reminding me that we’ve lived the past two years in a job-hopping, academic fugue. That we’re not living the present as the kind of future our eighteen-year-old selves had hoped we would be living.

I want to tell you that we were spoilt, hedonistic brats who were ignorant of the world in its reality. I want to tell you that we were especially narrow-minded and naive and arrogant. I want to tell you that whatever we were chasing didn’t exist, doesn’t exist. We were fools!

But were we really?

We had a drive like we had at no other age. There wasn’t just spark. There was fire. Like a big, fucking cannonball that could smoke up the world and block out the sun. It was both hyperbolic and dangerously real. We could do anything, be anything. Junyang, remember that time when you masking-taped a moth off the wall? Yeah, that sort of mad spontaneity possessed us all then.

It’s missing now.

Our dreams of fame and fortune and New York City have simmered into the heat of twenty-one-year-old fatigue. You have cold feet going abroad when the self you sacrificed would have screamed with anguished joy. You entertain thoughts of settling down in our fluorescent hellhole of a city when all you could think about back then was running away. You meet my gaze with an equivalent amount of world-weariness that will never go away. And then there’s that air of resignation about you when you talk about the future as fate. When the hell were you ever fatalistic?

I want you back with your drive and ambition and spark. I want you back with your idealism and glitterball of dreams. I want to shake you and scream at you and, and…  tell you that I love you most when you were eighteen.

Then again, you already know. Because you feel the same way about me.

I saw the pictures of your ‘A’ Level art coursework again last night, next to mine:  the rattan plane sculptures, the colour-blocked fashion spread, the textured photographs, the pop-up children’s book. They took me back to the art room again and I thought of how extraordinary you already were. There’s still a future out there.  I can see it. It’s a different kind of New York City. But it’s still bright and filled with possibility. You’ll get there again. Soon. Someday. Maybe.

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