Claire Betita de Guzman
April in Singapore
Martine dressed in layers, even if it was scorching hot outside. Just like me, she wore ornate blouses, embellished jackets, and shiny, beaded shawls—clever things we draped on that drew attention to our faces and not to the parts of our bodies that were better off out of sight. It’s what I always tell her, whenever we go clothes-shopping: highlight the best, conceal the rest. Martine agreed with me on this because we were already in our late-thirties, but also because she considered me one of her best friends. Those were her very words and I felt proud, even if we’ve just known each other for a year.
It was April in Singapore and we were dressed this way as we worked the crowds along Orchard Road, pounding through the wide sidewalks and dodging the sun whenever we could, joking about our sweaty armpits. Martine was in a good mood, and so was I. Martine, I know, because she had met someone, and me—well, because we were on vacation: our first girls’ getaway and one that was so special that Martine had even paid for everything. Her treat, she insisted, because this trip could be life-changing. It was past midnight when we checked-in at the hotel.
“It’s too quiet here,” she told me as we unpacked last night, which I knew had something to do with the silence of her phone. I had watched her mood soar and drop according to the spate of messages that came through its bright, glowing screen; I had seen how, for the last three months, her mobile seemed almost an extension of her arm. So despite our exciting plans for the next three days, which included forays in the offbeat shops of Tiong Bahru, a coffee crawl at trendy Keong Saik Road and a much-awaited meet-up in Sentosa—a wise, reliable choice in my opinion and the highlight of this Singapore trip—Martine upon arrival appeared subdued, a little unsure.
So I cheered her up like I always did—and we laughed in bed until we rolled about in tears, recounting the chaotic bits and pieces of our country that we’ve temporarily left behind: the crazed, rush-hour traffic along EDSA that almost made us miss our flight, our Grab driver’s operatic complaints about passengers who insisted on their own roundabout routes, and the immigration officer at NAIA who’d motioned for us both to approach the window and asked us, again and again, what our business in Singapore was.
“Shopping,” I’d blurted out, saying the first thing that came to mind. There was a snaking, throbbing queue that had already formed behind us.
“Love,” was Martine’s answer, her voice measured and low, colliding with mine.
“Ano daw? The immigration lady leaned forward, eyes narrow and alert. “What’s that, now?”
Martine cleared her throat and straightened her back. “Ma’am,” she said, in that firm but charming way she’d always had, “I’m meeting the love of my life in Singapore.”
I looked at her askance, and not without alarm. But it was true, it was honest. This was Martine: she did things right.
The immigration officer had a deep, permanent wrinkle between her brows and looked like she’d gone through worse traffic snarls on her daily commute than we did on that one trip to the airport. But she nodded mutely, pressed the departure stamp ever-so-carefully on both our passports, and let us through.
“Is it true?” I asked Martine, when we’ve settled at an outdoor café in Club Street. Our morning venture in Orchard had left us hungry.
“What is?” Martine had her elbows on the table and her phone with both hands, a thumb frenziedly scrolling through the messages.
“That you’re in love?”
“With Philippe?” Eyes still on her screen, she plucked a piece of bread from my plate, a habit that had always irked me. She put her phone down for a moment and gazed out at the shophouse-lined street before us. “Well, yes.”
I took a sip from my rosé, feeling my heart beat faster than it should. “Really?” My eyes flicked at her, then at her glass of chardonnay, sweating and untouched. “No!”
“Yes!” Martine raised her chin, the corners of her mouth curving upwards into one of her signature megawatt smiles. “Finally, Anna. I found my soulmate!”
I leaned back into my chair, and saw it: last night’s anxiety gone, replaced by proper anticipation. Still, I tried again. “Don’t you think it’s a little strange?”
“Uh-oh.” Martine stole another piece from my plate—a mushroom, this time. She popped it into her mouth and shook her head. “I know what you’re going to say!”
“You haven’t even Facetimed yet,” I barreled on. “You and this guy—Philippe, I mean.”
“Oh. Pfft.” Her gaze rested on me for a split second, lit and animated. She waved a delicate hand, airy and dismissive. “No need, and isn’t that why I flew all the way here? We’re seeing each other tomorrow!”
She looked so happy. She really did. I smiled through my sweat, thinking how I’ve always loved being in Singapore: the clean streets, the food, the shopping, the safety. It was noontime and oppressively humid, but now I didn’t mind. Feeling reckless, I placed my phones (I had two, natch) face-down on the table and hung my bag on the back of my chair.
“Martine,” I said, wanting to be both gentle and insistent. “You haven’t even spoken to him.”
“But we’ve been messaging each other, every single moment of every single day since January!”
“On Facebook,” I said, watching her face. Mine was clouded in doubt, for sure. “That’s enough for you?”
“Look,” Martine said now, leaning close to show me the screen of her phone, as if she hadn’t heard a word I’ve said. “It doesn’t matter now. I just saw Philippe’s message, sent an hour ago—he’s about to board his flight!”
“Ah.” I took another careful sip of my wine. “From Brussels, right?”
“Yup! Just a thirteen-hour flight away.” Martine sat back and kissed her phone like a giddy teenager, breathless and spent. I thought of how Philippe’s photo, one of the many I know they’ve exchanged, had become the background of her iPhone screen.
“I’m really glad I decided to meet him in Singapore,” she continued. “Philippe was right when he said that Manila was too far, too complicated. I mean, you saw what we had to go through last night at NAIA.”
It was complicated, meeting up in Manila. And so unexciting. And of course, I knew how Martine felt, what she needed.
“Indeed,” I said, nodding. “Singapore was the best choice.”
“The perfect place for our first meeting!” Martine cried. “Oh, Anna. He calls me mon amour.”
“Mon amour,” I murmured, more to myself, correctly pronouncing the “r”. Four years of French classes, finally put to use. “Oui, bien sur.”
“The French—well, Philippe’s from Paris but stationed at work in Brussels—they’re, gosh, how can I explain it to you?” Martine gave a helpless shrug, eyes turning limpid. “The connection was instant. It was as if he knew me right from the start.”
I hung my head. “I’m sorry,” I said, eyes cast downward. “My questions. I’m so cruel. I’m a jerk.”
“What? Oh, sus.” Martine, as if snapping out of a trance, blew out her cheeks and laughed. “You’re my friend, Anna.”
“My best friend,” she said again, reaching out to take my hand, even as her eyes darted to the silent screen of her phone. “I know you’re just looking out for me.”
It was not my first trip to Singapore. There was a time when I remembered the months according to the places I’d been: January to March at the beaches of Boracay or Baler, May to August in the quaint, small towns of Italy, France, or the isles of the Swedish archipelago, September to November at rugged safaris in South Africa and Sri Lanka. Christmas in December, had at one time, consisted of epic feasts in the old city of Tbilisi, Georgia. We had no children, Dave and I, so it had all been possible—perhaps, even necessary.
All that stopped, of course, after the hospital. My limbs had been in perfect order but this kind of eclectic, multifarious traveling—they said—was too hectic, too tiring, too complicated.
“Too triggering,” I’d joked, when it was all still fresh and I’d decided that people—yes, even doctors—listened when you told them what they wanted to hear.
Still, what was one to do, but to keep going? Martine would have agreed for sure.
I saw myself in her right away, the first time I met her. My old self, my younger self. We shared a table at a tiny café and I saw she was treating herself to a sinful slice of chocolate cake. I was having one, too, because I had just come from a check-up, convinced that the meds made food taste like sawdust. To distract myself, I told her what I’ve always told people about me.
“Fifteen years?” Martine exclaimed when she learned how long I’ve been married. “You and Dave—you’ve been together that long?” She put down her fork. “Wow!”
“Surely, you have a boyfriend, ‘no?” I asked, catching the slight envy in her voice, careful that I didn’t sound rude. “Or loads of suitors!”
“No and no,” Martine laughed. She shoved a piece of cake in her mouth.“Walang love-life. I’m married to my job!”
“That can’t be true,” I protested, even if it felt insincere. Martine was flippant and jaded in the same way I used to be, before all this mess.
“You’re so lucky, you have your husband.” She scraped the last bits of her cake. “Me? God, I just want someone.”
This was how we ended up in sunny Singapore, Martine and me, one glorious April day.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her now, as we stepped off the tram at Sentosa’s Beach Station.
“Nervous,” Martine replied, gazing at the small stretch of sandy beach before us. “Excited. I don’t know.” Spotting an outdoor bar, she took a few steps towards the bamboo-trimmed entryway. “Maybe we should have a drink nearby first.”
“C’est une bonne idée,” I quipped, feeling expansive. A good idea. There had been many good ideas, but this Singapore trip had been the best.
“I need to learn French, too,” she giggled, as the bartender handed us pink margaritas and a small plate of tomato-laden bruschetta. A dreamy smile spread across her face as she sipped her icy drink. “What if Philippe asks me to move to Europe?”
“You can do anything, Martine,” I replied, raising my glass. “Anything you want.”
She gestured at the open-air bar a few hundred meters away, replete with wooden tables and coconut trees strung gaily with fairy lights. “Thank god we’re just meeting next door,” she said, placing a hand on my arm. “I’m so glad you went all the way here with me.”
I nodded, feeling a lump in my throat. “It’s time,” I said, glancing at her watch. My phones were buried deep in the layers of my clothing.
“Oh!” She smoothed out the front of her billowy blouse and checked her phone before tucking it into her back pocket. “Philippe said seven o’clock!”
“Then you’d better go,” I said, holding her elbow as she wiggled off the bar stool. I couldn’t keep the excitement off my voice, too.
I watched Martine’s retreating figure grow small, dark, and fuzzy against the early evening sky. Tonight’s sunset was missing; in its place was this spot at the edge of Singapore awash in a muted, mysterious, inexplicable blue.
I tore off a corner from Martine’s leftover piece of bread—just a little, because I knew she’d be back. Then I fished out my phone, opened Facebook Messenger, and started typing: Desolé, mon amour. I’m sorry.
It tasted like chocolate cake, and I felt surrounded by peacocks.