Meeting the Mistress

Lisa VanderVeen

(USA)


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‘Who is she?’ I ask in a hesitant whisper, simultaneously dreading the answer and needing to know. 

Our bedroom is dark, though it’s only 7PM. The January cold seeps through the windowpane of our New Jersey home and I shiver. I’m twenty-four hours into the hell he dropped me into last night when he ended our twenty-year marriage over a lacklustre dinner of Costco salad. 

Tonight, he sits in our navy-blue Queen Anne chair in the corner – the one whose fabric we laboured over, comparing swatches at Ethan Allen when things like chairs mattered. I sit across from him, on the bed, crying softly. 

It hit me dumbly in the middle of last night, as I tried to make sense of his words. Though unfathomable, there must be someone else. He’s having an affair. He sighs a relieved breath, as though unburdening himself. 

‘I was unfaithful. But it wasn’t an affair. I wouldn’t do that to you. They were prostitutes. In Singapore. Classy women. Not what you’d imagine.’ ‘How long?’ I manage to ask, ignoring the abhorrent details and sticking to the facts. 

‘Five years.’ He says, looking at his feet. 

The rest of the evening, the rest of the month, the rest of the year pass in a blur. He moves out. We hire lawyers. 

After our separation, the cheating in Singapore became cheating with Singapore. He used her to run away from our life together, moving there for a new job. He rented an apartment, entertained friends I never met, biked in the park across from Marina Bay Sands and ate at hawker stalls. He created a life without me in Singapore. I don’t know the details for certain, of course. We were barely speaking by the time he moved to the Lion City. But he ran to her as he ran from me. 

One thing was certain in this sea of uncertainty, in the muck of divorce: I vowed to never visit Singapore. Ever. 

***** 

Five years later, I feel slightly woozy as words pour out of the speakers. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our final descent into Singapore. Please make sure your seats are back and the tray tables are in the upright position.’ 

My shaking hands struggle to open the window shade, giving me my first view of the city. At sunset, the sanguine sky is Rorschach-reflected in the water below until the red seems to bleed across the whole landscape. Angry rain clouds form a backdrop of white mountains in the distance. A flash of lightning cuts the cloud formation, warning me away. 

What did he feel, landing here, leaving his old life behind like the shedding of a skin? Was he relieved? Unburdened? Remorseful? 

Shaking my head, I recommit to my promise not to invite his ghost with me on this trip. 

Singapore is my first stop on a month-long journey to Southeast Asia, the majority of which will be spent in Laos and Northern Thailand. Even though I’d had no intention of giving Singapore my time or money, I’d bought a round-trip ticket from New Jersey to the country for just $129. From here, it’s a cheap, short flight to my next destination, saving me at least a thousand dollars. Singapore has forced my hand.

I exit the airport. Finding a cab is straightforward, and the cabbie makes light conversation as we whiz past high-rise apartment buildings. The dialogue in my head is loud, making it hard to hear him. I’m thinking of my ex-husband. 

Did he live there? There? Which floor? How many bedrooms? Where did he buy furniture? Did he collect art? How did he spend his weekends? We bought those white dishes in Bangladesh. What happened to those? Did he bring them here? 

He’s not in Singapore anymore. Our daughter told me he moved to California last year. I’m grateful I don’t have to worry about running into him here. I start a conversation with the cabbie to silence the din in my head. ‘Did you grow up here?’ I ask. 

‘You can’t drive a cab in Singapore unless you’re over thirty and a native.’ He says, proudly. 

‘Taxis are the tourists’ first exposure to our city. They want to make sure we make a good impression.’ 

Brilliant. Singapore is not only pretty, she’s smart. He didn’t leave me for a bimbo.

***** 

I sleep fitfully and wake disoriented. The room is dark, and I try to remember where I am. My phone says it’s 4AM. Too early to wake but too amped up to sleep, I turn on the light and push the button on the Nespresso machine. 

I have plans this evening to meet up with Emma, a friend I met in an online class a few months ago. She’s a Brit whose husband’s job brought them here as expats. I’m grateful for the anchor. I have no expectations for these next couple of days. My goals are simple: recover from jet lag, spend time with Emma, and get to Bangkok as quickly as possible. 

I leave the hotel at 7AM, the sun having just risen. Little India is waking up. Trucks deliver produce in back alleys. The storefronts are locked, the stalls are covered by tarps, and boys in grey and blue uniforms hurry to school. I walk up Serangoon Road, figuring I can’t get lost if I just go straight. Pausing at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple festooned with brightly coloured statues of the Hindu goddess Kali, I watch the girls kick off their shoes to go inside. I stand outside because I am an outsider. I’m not ready to engage with this place or its girls. I hear the bells affixed to the entryway. The girls ring them as they enter. It’s hot. The kind of hot where you sweat out the glass of water you just drank and you don’t have to pee. 

Traffic is light this morning. It’s Friday. Maybe it’s too early for traffic. The smells are foreign. Actually, the smells are Singapore. I’m the one who’s foreign. Flowers fill the air with dense perfume, and I smell Indian spices. Not hungry but hoping food might reset my body clock, I stop for dosa: thin, crunchy crepe with spiced potatoes and cashews inside. There’s chutney too – coconut, something orange and spicy – and a brothy vegetable soup. 

After breakfast I return to the hotel, nauseated. This overwhelming sensation of culture shock is not new to me. I always feel it when I land in Southeast Asia. Waves of jet lag like walking on a heaving boat. What am I doing here? What am I doing here alone in his city? I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. 

I nap and read in my room much of the day, giving myself grace. It’s a strange little hotel room. India-themed, the cream bunkbeds decorated with lavish gold waves taking up most of the space. Animal prints and a jungle mural complete the decor. I feel homesick. 

Emma texts me to meet at Merlion Park. I don’t know what that is, so I Google it and see a statue of a mermaid/lion creature breathing water out of its mouth in the direction of the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel. I’ve Googled Singapore a lot over the past few years, wondering what was so compelling about this city that he’d leave a twenty-year marriage for her. Marina Bay Sands is the iconic hotel that shows up in every Google search of Singapore. Three highrise towers support a rooftop that resembles an impossibly long boat. Instagrammers love its infinity pool with views of the city. 

Emma finds me easily, even in the huge crowd gathered on a beautiful summer evening. The sky is ultramarine with wispy clouds. We take a selfie in front of the statue and head off to a nearby patio for glasses of crisp white wine. 

She leans in, listening intently as I share my history with her city. ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ She says, making me feel seen. 

She shares herself, too. We talk deeply about parenting, travel, families of origin, ordering several rounds of wine as the air cools in the darkening sky. We talk and talk and talk, and it feels like I’ve known her for much longer than a six-week online class. As we wrap up happy hour and head to Lau Pa Sat Hawker Center for chicken, shrimp and beef satay, the sky is lit by the most magnificent firework display. 

‘They’re practicing for National Day. August 9th.’ Emma explains, as a puff of white dandelion fluff explodes in the sky above Marina Bay Sands, throwing orange, red and green offshoots into the night. It’s June 17. This city is an overachiever. She works hard to maintain her irresistible appeal. Is this why he fell for her? 

***** 

Three weeks later, I’m back in Singapore for my flight home. I’ve been to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Thailand and all through Laos. As the cab drives me into the city, I feel vulnerable, all over again. Emma is away and I’m on my own. 

Warehouse Hotel is located on the river, in Robertson Quay. The area is trendy and historically important to Singapore’s commerce with India and China. It is lined with warehouses along the river where goods were stored until the trade winds were favourable. This hotel, under the Marriott Bonvoy umbrella, is in one of these warehouses. 

It’s 9PM and the lobby is dark. It feels more like a club than a lobby, with a long, backlit bar and pulsing music. Giant metal wheels and dimly lit industrial bulbs hang from the high ceiling. I squint to find the small front desk. 

‘Welcome to Singapore!’ Says the perky clerk, collecting my credit card and passport. She puts my keycard on the glass-topped display case, which serves as a countertop. It holds handcuffs and a key, along with other artifacts presumably relating to the building’s history. I’m disconcerted by the handcuffs. Did he stay here? Is this where he ordered the prostitutes? He was, after all, a loyal Marriott Bonvoy patron. 

My room is on the second floor, down a long hallway. It’s sleek and modern, continuing the industrial motif. In fact, it’s so sleek and modern that I struggle to figure out the buttons and knobs, all of which only have icons and no words. I can hear the music from the lobby bar below. It’s been a long day and I’m ready to rest. After I figure out how to turn the lights on, I check out the minibar. 

I’d like a glass of wine but my need for quiet precludes a trip downstairs. Instead of a menu there’s a small, brown card with a QR code. It reads ‘Minibar of Vices’. I scan the code, noting the language ‘Celebrate all the colourful complexities of being human’. 

Waiting for the menu to load, I open the box on top of the minibar. Inside, I find a whip, a peacock feather, a blindfold, and a condom. 

What the hell? Am I being punked? It’s a Marriott, for God’s sake. 

The menu on my phone reads ‘Naughty somethings for the Mr./Mrs./Mistresses & More’, before informing that the peacock feather costs $6 and the ‘BDSM paddle’ $15. I wince at ‘Mistresses & More’. Seriously? I text photos of the minibar to friends, who send me the crying laughing emoji until I crack a smile. 

I pour a glass of wine and sit back on the bed, trying hard not to imagine what may have happened here. Googling ‘Robertson Quay’, I discover its past identity as the red-light district. Ironic. It’s obviously up to me to figure out how to reframe the next two days. 

***** 

Morning dawns with a cloudless, bright blue sky. I head out steadfastly, emboldened by the absurdity of the minibar of vices and refusing to let him ruin my last day here. Doubtful that I’ll ever return, I might as well see what this place has to offer. 

I catch a Grab (Southeast Asia’s version of Uber) to Kampong Gelam, the Muslim quarter. I visit the gleaming-domed Sultan Mosque and stroll past the shop fronts, looking for coffee. Most of them aren’t open yet and the streets are quiet. I love the romantic, colonial architecture. The buildings are perfectly shabby and coloured in the most delicious pastels, like Easter eggs, shutters opening like outstretched arms offering an embrace. It’s edgier than I expected, with an outdoor art gallery of whimsical graffiti scenes painted on the backs of the shops. I particularly love a building painted with baskets and cats, so dimensional that I reach out to touch them. 

I leave the quarter and meander up a busy thoroughfare, not really caring where I end up. Wanting to walk and discover and get to know Singapore, slowly. Passing a Chinese street market on a side street, I turn down the road to look at the various vendors. Yellow lanterns hang overhead and a gold Buddha with a huge belly smiles down at me from his platform. I spy a stack of white hand towels on a shelf in one of the shops. I’ve seen them on clotheslines and in my hotel bar. Edged in blue stitching and stamped with a cursive ‘Good Morning’ in red, next to what looks like a laurel wreath, they’re the cheeriest towels I’ve ever seen. I buy a couple, imagining their greeting on a cold winter morning in New Jersey. 

At lunchtime I visit Maxwell Food Centre for comforting (and Michelin-rated) Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Steamed to perfection with gravy and greens, it could have come from my grandmother’s kitchen. I take my time, savouring the feeling of familiarity it gives me. I’m not lonely as I eat. I catch myself wondering whether he’s been here, but I’m loving the sights, flavours, sounds and smells. When I am finished, I am careful to clear my tray, having read that you could be fined for not doing so. She’s polite, too. I’m taking myself on my own date with Singapore, today. And she is delighting me. Perhaps that was her goal all along.

After lunch I stop by the Peranakan Museum. I want to understand more about the amalgamation of cultures that fill this city. I’d always imagined that Singapore didn’t have its own culture, and was just a cocktail of Indian, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian influences. I sit in the stillness, grateful for the air conditioning, while I watch a movie narrated by people who identify as Peranakan. They explain their families’ heritage, origin and traditions. After the movie I walk slowly through the displays, savouring the craftsmanship of the beadwork, stitching and porcelain and ceramic pots. The colours are strikingly bright and cheerful and I’m reminded of a box of Crayola crayons from my childhood. Sea green, periwinkle, lavender, carnation pink and sky blue. 

My last stop of the day is Emerald Hill Rd. – to see the old Peranakan houses for myself. I walk up Orchard St., passing generic big box stores until I hit the small enclave, formerly a nutmeg orchard. The houses date to the early 1900s and stand in a row, shoulder to shoulder, with tall, arched windows on the second and third floors. They’re painted in blues, greens and yellows, with floral tiles and gingerbread cutouts. Some of the paint is peeling and discoloured, but it feels like a nod to their age and their fight to survive the renovation in this modern city. I am awed, not only by their beauty but by their perseverance and pluck. 

I have walked over nine miles in the heat today and am ready to pack my bag for tomorrow’s flight home. 

***** 

The plane ascends into a calm sky and I gaze down at Singapore, watching with affection as her landmarks become dollhouse-sized.

Reaching into my bag for my book, I feel the smooth paper wrapping I carefully packed between my sweater and journal. Yesterday, I’d happened upon an antique store with a stack of Peranakan tiles in the window. I stepped through the narrow doorway and waved at the diminutive, slightly stooped man behind the counter. Pointing at the tiles, I asked about their origin. He smiled broadly and reached behind him to pull a worn paperback manual from the shelf above. 

‘Have you seen the old Peranakan houses?’ He asked. 

‘Yes! I loved Emerald Hill Road.’ I said. 

He nodded. ‘When they’re demolished or renovated, these tiles are thrown away.’ He rifled through the manual, showing me examples of tiles from different houses. ‘I have some of these in the back.’ 

He pointed with a finger stained by dirt and dust to a wooden display. It was filled with a variety of tiles in different shapes, colours and sizes. A thin layer of construction dust filled the crevices, making their survival poignant. I felt a sudden compulsion to bring one home. I didn’t think I’d want a souvenir of this place, but my date with her had changed my mind. Searching through shelves of tiles, I found the perfect one. A textured pink and red flower with green leaves. This discarded thing was made more special, stronger, by being tossed away. Perhaps the same is true of me. 

I was surprised to realise that I, too, had fallen in love with Singapore. Not with the lusty minibar, nor with prostitutes, but with her unexpected delights. The enchantment of soft-hued shopfronts, the gift of a new friendship, an awakened understanding of history and culture, the world-class hawker food, cheery towels and charming tiles. As I wandered her streets at my own pace, she’d shared herself generously with me in a much more intimate way than a one-night stand. 

I smile as I close the window shade. 

Singapore is not his anymore. She’s mine.

Lisa VanderVeen

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

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