December 1999

Halfway to eternity




 Newly recharged by the ATM, I turned to leave while stuffing the cash into my wallet. I wasn't quite looking where I was going and almost walked into the 7-Eleven's glass door just as it opened.

"Oops, sorry," we both said, and looked at each other speechless for something like halfway to eternity.

Even as we both broke into broad smiles, each of us was racking our brains trying desperately to recall the other's name. No hope. It's been too long.

"My God, it's been more than twenty years!" I finally said, "and you look as beautiful as you were then," I didn't say.

"And you -- exactly the same!" he said, in the soft-spoken manner I had not heard in all this while.

"You too."

"I could recognise you immediately." He was beginning to repeat himself, probably still buying time, hoping to recall my name.

"Excuse me," a big Malay woman said to him, snapping us out of our reverie. She was trying to exit the 7-Eleven; he was blocking the door. He moved sideways to let her pass, but all the while held his smile at me.

The last time I saw him, he would have been in army uniform. In fact, I don't think I ever saw him in anything else. He was a medic with one of the battalions, and every other day or so, he would have to take a few servicemen down to our central clinic at the Manpower Base for some tests. He would stick his head through our front door and say, "Hello, I have work for you to do," and hand us the medical dockets of his patients.

If I had to attend to his patients, we would not have had the time to chat, but if my colleague was doing them, then quite often I'd be free enough to sit and talk a while in between whatever paperwork or microscopy I was doing. Yet I can't recall now what we ever talked about. It's not as if we had much in common. His main language was Chinese -- I've seen him with a Chinese newspaper while he waited for his patients to be released -- though I had this impression that he actually came from an English-medium school. In those days, even now I guess, it was nothing unusual. People would come out of 10 years of English schooling and still manage not much more than broken English.

The army was a great leveller. We were thrown in together, from all classes of society, and we just had to get along. We were all equally powerless in the face of that huge bureaucracy that was the Ministry of Defence. In National Service, nobody could control his own fate. There was no discernible logic why one was assigned to be a medic and another a combat engineer. There was no point being ambitious and scramble to be top of the heap. Whatever one's rank, the reality was that we were all bottom of the heap, told to carry out orders or hold to a routine that seldom made any sense. We'd all just serve our two or two-and-a-half years and get out of there.

I still can't recall what we ever talked about. Probably it was never more than small talk. Where exactly is your camp located? When's your run-out date? Did you see that movie I told you about last week? Where got time? Unlike you, I have to stay in, you know. My battalion going to Brunei, but only the combat medics will follow them. I stay in Singapore. Heng, ah. Nobody in camp.

He was beautiful, though after a year or so I knew that the beauty I saw in his face was entirely subjective. Others might not agree with me. He wasn't going to be a supermodel or a film star, but he had clear, fair skin, a smooth complexion, bright eyes and a ready smile. Still, there was something a bit Hokkien-peng about him -- the gait perhaps, certainly the speech pattern. I don't mean the rough gangster types, which in truth are quite rare. I mean the more gentle, unassuming types. Those generous in spirit, with no pretensions, and able to see the lighter side of everything. In National Service, when your hopes and dreams are going nowhere and you'll do best if you just lived day by day, they're the best carefree buddies you can have.

I wouldn't say he was any buddy of mine. We didn't see each other frequently enough; we didn't get to know each other that well. But I had this secret crush on him. Each time he poked his face through the door, the room changed. The day brightened. Yet week after week, I was never able to find anything in common to take our conversation beyond the routine. I was still in the closet and I had neither the words nor the guts to unveil any part of my secret to him. In any case, Hokkien-pengs, even medics, are always straight, aren't they? It would totally spoil everything; he would forever avoid me if I even hinted at having a crush on him. It would just have to remain a private pleasure to see him each time he came by, and be thankful for that.

Nor was he the only one I had a secret crush on. There were so, so many others. I can't imagine now how I lasted through all that without ever doing anything about it. I suppose I simply assumed that everyone else was straight, and that to expect my longings to be reciprocated was as likely as reaching out to touch the moon. The best I could do was to sit around the office or canteen with the guys, exchanging jokes, gossip and small talk, which to think of it now, was as fruitless as flipping through a magazine gazing at beautiful men. Ultimately unattainable; unreal. And now I've even forgotten their names.

"How are you doing?" I said to him outside the 7-Eleven, like an automaton doing the automatic playback each time we meet someone after a long while.

"Fine, and you?"

"OK. Could be richer." I was trying hard to vary the spiel.

"Must buy Toto."

We spoke a bit about where we each served our reserve duty, how it is all over now -- my God! that only tells you how much time has flown by! -- and a bit about the work we do. Men talk. All external stuff, not a breath about what's inside us.

But the darnest thing was how he looked at me. There is a difference between someone smiling politely while engaging in cordialities -- a kind of social smile -- and a smile that is more truly an expression of something within. His face, his smile, were unrelated to the words we exchanged. They were too radiant with memory. He was mildly hyperventilating and mentally absent from the street where we stood. I could sense, inside him, a storm of recall, of younger days and happier times, even as I myself was being whipped around by my own private whirlwind of memory.

Soon, even the words petered out. And we stood there just looking at each other. For a moment, time stood still as I marvelled how well beauty could last, and how I could just lean forward and kiss him today. And right at that moment, it really blew my mind. I realised he was looking straight into me, as if he knew something, or had just thought of something. Whatever it was, it was deeply personal. It wasn't about the camp, or the daily routine of shuttling "report sick" soldiers back and forth. It wasn't about how rosy and happy things were. It was about him and me.

Maybe he remembered I had a crush on him. Which could only mean that he had known it even then, way, way back. It's possible -- I know now because I've since seen a bit more of the world -- that there could have been innumerable give-aways in words, gestures and inordinate attentiveness, clues which I was too nave to see myself. But wait a minute: if he had been aware of my crush, wouldn't that mean that he was at least on the same "wavelength" as I was? I merely assumed he was straight, as everybody else around me seemed to be. I had no functioning gaydar then; I had no inkling there was such a device.

So what's my gaydar telling me today? Most frustratingly, nothing. All snowy and short-circuited by the electricity of the moment. And once again, like twenty years before, there was no easy way to find out. We come from different worlds that only momentarily touched. While I'm now such an out person, he -- if he were gay in the first place -- might still be in the closet, and I might freak the hell out of him by broaching the subject. Or perhaps I was imagining all this. He could really be straight and any suggestion of gayness might tailspin the moment. I don't know him well enough to raise the question. Not even to allude to it. It might forever distort his memory of our army days, and I really should respect the preciousness of it.

Besides, what am I going to do with the information now? I don't really intend to see him again. I still don't think we have any common interests. Sometimes we have to be gentle and let the past lie.

So we said "it's great seeing you again," and "hope to see you sometime soon". We shook hands, and he walked a short distance to the traffic light to cross the road. He indicated his pick-up truck was parked on the other side.

While waiting for the Green Man, he looked at me still, smiling all the while. It gave me a fillip to think that I can have such a wonderful impact on another, if only briefly. The adult in me wished him well. I floated to him my sincerest wishes: may you be happy and may fortune smile upon you. But as he held his gaze on me -- now why was he doing that? -- I couldn't help but relive the puppy love and turn into mush. I just had to say it. It's crazy. I don't really mean it. But then again, I've said it to hundreds of others and it's never done me any harm. If anything, it's done me good, to feel young again and to feel I have brightened the world in some tiny way. So I smiled right back, held him in my eyes and said to him in my heart, "And I shall always love you."

Yawning Bread