The problem with dating in a small city like Singapore? Bumping into exes

The problem with dating in a small city like Singapore? Bumping into exes

So Here's The Thing

Text: Teresa Hee

It happened not once, not twice, but many times over. Stay with me as I recall all the “OMG”, “WTF” and “like that also can” moments

You feel a ghost before you see it. The hair at the back of your neck, each strand stands as if on alert. A cool shiver moves down your spine. Your throat tightens. Your breath shallows. The scent of a foreign entity though absent only a fraction of a second prior, now permeates the air. Before you fault your intuition, blame paranoia, something moves, in and out of your frame of vision. As you spot it only out of the corner of your eyes, you risk missing it. Yet, you can't bring yourself to turn your cheek for a full look. You're at once curious and afraid, because to know is to acknowledge but to not know is to wonder always.

Life is not a horror flick, dull and grey, in slow motion; there is no fog, no crow, no howl in the wind. The music doesn't build in anticipation. It doesn't hint at its oncoming surprises with a warning, except the quickening of your heartbeat. You feel a ghost before you see it and that's how you know they're real, even if religion isn't a language you speak. The ghosts we share regardless of creed are of the romance kin. Ex-lovers — someone you've laughed with, cried with, sinned with. That kind of connection is roosted in the cosmic. It doesn't always perish when the relationship finds a conclusion; it lingers, albeit forgotten.

So here's the thing: I've seen a ghost lately. My ghost's name is Preston* and he's been wandering the streets of Singapore, waiting for the chance to shake me out of my ignorant bliss that we occupy this tiny 719.1 square kilometres island together. Call us unhappy, unwilling cohabitants. Before I launch into the sordid tale of Casper and Wendy's unexpected reunion, I'll walk you through serendipitous happenstances of a lighter nature.

Bumping into men I've dated (and some, admittedly ghosted) is not the same as bumping into a love I've once considered for life. Both involve the same emotion — panic — but a rainbow of feelings ranging from anger to nostalgia follows the latter, depending on which time of the month it occurs. The former, dread with trepidation. It feels eerily similar to a bitch slap I failed to anticipate. Remember how shook Carrie Bradshaw was in her Plaza Athénée suite when the heat of Alekandr Petrovsky's backhand landed across her face? Yeah, like that. I compare seeing a past f*ckboi canoodling in broad daylight with his new major flavour to getting slammed by the bus I never saw coming, à la Regina George in Mean Girls. It sends you to the brink of hell and drags you back by your hair.

"Life is not a horror flick, dull and grey, in slow motion; there is no fog, no crow, no howl in the wind. The music doesn't build in anticipation."

Here's looking at you, Richard*. Richard's problem was he was the exact person on Tinder as he was IRL. It is through my vast experience I find that a majority of men suck at texting. He was not one of those guys. In fact, if textual compatibility was all that mattered in matrimony, Richard was a texter I could easily walk down a digital aisle with. Rapid-fire responses, old-school and popular culture references, never ending supply of wicked lines that could easily turn into inside jokes... they point to a good date, which is why I bit the bullet after a mere two hours of thumb-ercise (that's thumb exercise for you).

Then, downhill. His quick comebacks and witty repartee weren't accompanied by the breathable pauses in person that existed in our cyber chat space. The good: He was able to breeze through a multitude of topics over a short period of time. The bad: He barely let me have a word in edgewise. The very good: He had travelled the world and came with it, fascinating stories about people he met and cultures he saw. The very bad: He barely asked me about my thoughts or my views, even after it was clear I hadn't accumulated as many frequent flyer miles. Basically, he talked at me. For three hours, the only times his vocal chords weren't vibrating were when he had a kebab, a Whiskey sour or a cigarette in his mouth. The silver lining, if you can consider this one, is he took my rejection for a second date like a gentleman when I confessed that I prefer my conversations how I like my salmon seared — double-sided. Nice man, Richard was. I just needed him to STFU.

The story with Scott is similarly short. Your typical finance bro, he took me to a nice spot in the CBD area where he obviously goes often enough for the bartender to greet him by name and give him a thick slap on the back every time he came to get our next round of orders. Scott was fine. We just came up short in the chemistry department — the only department that really matters on the first date.

It was barely midnight, but my girlfriends and I were already pretty buzzed at The Cufflink Club that fateful Friday evening. The '80s hip-hop music was on fire and so was my throat, several cocktails down, when Richard strolled in with an unidentified friend. If I wasn't inebriated, I might have attributed this chance encounter to destiny, because I had just spotted him at Laneway Festival weeks prior. Three cheers for the saner (sloshed, but still sane) Teresa triumphed. We exchanged pleasantries warmer than necessary — earl grey gin gets me in trouble — and the insincere nonetheless obligatory "let's hang out sometime" speech, before I slunk back into the leather seat to questions coming at me at all angles. "Singapore is too small," I slurred. Little did I know the night was less than done with me.

"The silver lining, if you can consider this one, is he took my rejection of a second date like a gentleman when I told him that I prefer my conversations how I like my salmon seared — double sided."

It wasn't until much later, when we somehow found ourselves throwing back shots (drink count at this point: Five. Maybe more), when I heard a loud, "Heyyyyyyyy!" adjacent to our booth. The familiarity between the two people was undeniable; their handshake fell into a natural hug. Only when they pulled back I spotted two faces I can put a name to. First Richard's then Scott's, plastered with grins for each other like long lost college buddies. When Scott turned my way, you bet I ducked. I ducked like Rambo ducked in Vietnam. I dodged like Neo in The Matrix. I hid like Wally in Where's Wally? I went from a giggling buffoon to a master of disguise so quickly, I'm surprised I didn't give myself a whiplash. 

That very night, the founder of a prominent local fitness studio whom I did a photo shoot with stopped me in my tracks on my way to the ladies. It was a welcomed pleasant surprise. Having said that, I hadn't been back to Cufflink since. It's not quite the Russian Roulette if you're sure to shoot yourself in the face, eh?

I wish my list of bump-and-hides ends here. No such luck. Someone I went on a date at Dempsey Hill with apparently also frequents the gym near my house. I wouldn't have avoided him like he was the plague when we crossed paths, then I remembered I told him (in my drunken stupor, so don't judge) that he bears a resemblance to David Gandy. My sober self disagrees fervently, so we shall never meet again, faux-David. #Sorry. And then there was that one colourful experience in Kith Café neither Chloe nor I will soon forget. I'm not one for profanities at breakfast — classy girls wait until noon or their first Bellini, whichever comes first. Still, I cursed like a sailor as I rested my honey ginger chai on the saucer.

Me: #$%!&@. I'm about to tell you something. Don't react. It's to do with someone in close proximity.
Chloe: OMG. Who in here did you sleep with? Tell me.

Tsk. It was one night I never think of in 2014. Kyle was sitting across from us, looking (if I'm being really honest) slightly worse for the wear, balding, but watching lovingly with tired eyes, at his date. I wish him and his ageing British scalp the best.

"You bet I ducked. I ducked like Rambo ducked in Vietnam. I dodged like Neo in The Matrix. I hid like Wally in Where's Wally?"

Would I feel the same about Preston if I saw him with a girl? Would I wish him the best? I'd like to think so, though my soft spot for him might puzzle you when I account for both instances during which we locked eyes, post-break up.

My last real conversation with Preston happened days after we called it quits, with just as much sentimentality expressed by him as I expressed them. I don't know how much of what he said, he meant. "You mean so much to me, more than you know", "I'm sorry I can't be what you need" and "We will always be friends. I promise" were some of the ones allow myself to remember.

In a way, Preston was my Mr. Big. He was older, Ivy League educated, dangerously charming, emotionally unavailable. Unlike Mr. Big, he never came around. And he never rescued me from Paris. He never rescued me, period. The cape, as it turns out, I had to wear for me. Towards the end of our 6-month relationship, I found myself seated across a therapist for the first time in my life. It was my version of a personal closure I suspected Preston was never really going to be able to give me since we decided to be friends. But friends don't walk away from friends. Friends don't pretend the other person doesn't exist.

It was a Sunday like many others that came and went without occassion. I had made myself brunch, spent a couple of hours on Netflix, gone to the gym and to end the slow day, I made my way solo to PARK at Holland Village for a cold tea to go with a copy of Time magazine. It was our spot, one I've avoided for months — lest I bump into him. Then I had a thought: How much do I let a botched relationship steer my life? Never mind jumping off a plane or moving to a foreign country alone twice in my teens and early 20s, going to therapy to excavate my feelings was the scariest thing I had ever done. Seeing Preston again should pale in comparison. Or so I thought.

Just because I have chosen to disregard fear, by no means will fear leave me be on that reason alone. I was constantly distracted that afternoon, scanning my surroundings, unable to completely immerse myself in my reading material. Drake wasn't playing in the café; it was truffle, not Tom Ford's Grey Vetiver perfume that I smelled, so while I had finally been able work my way through more than a page's worth of American politics, I was prompted by a force unknown to peek up again. And there he was. Preston, walking towards me not 100 metres away. I was sure it was him — I bought him the sunglasses he had on, and I recognised that 5'o clock shadow he wore so well, squint or no squint.

"In a way, Preston was my Mr. Big. He was older, Ivy League educated, dangerously charming, emotionally unavailable. Unlike Mr. Big, he never came around. And he never rescued me from Paris. He never rescued me, period."

I saw him. I saw him see me. I reached for my own sunnies to shield some of my face, so when he eventually made his way over, he couldn't tell if I was affected or not. I decided during those two seconds that we would give each other a hug hello and ask each other how we were doing. We would say we are glad to see one another and mean it. And then, he would take seat not beside me, not deliberately away either, because we are adults. We are cordial. We meant something to each other.

Reality fell short. In those two seconds, he disappeared. Gone. Vanished. Had I missed him so much I willed him into the weekend? My throat did tighten and my breath did thin. Does that mean he was a phantom, or a phantom of my imagination?

The answer to all the above, was no. Moments later, he rematerialized. From the corner behind a pillar, head buried in phone, he went back where he came from. Of all the fights he picked with me, of all the times he refused to answer my calls, of all the ways he verbalised that I was not a priority in his life, those five seconds came to par. We were only a couple months in on our hiatus, commencing from our tearful (on my end) phone call, during which he said he would wait for me to be ready take a crack at friendship, but his pledge had diluted.

And so did my feelings. Not immediately — over time. It took a tattoo, a vacation to New York City and maxed out credit limits. It took tequila, Kelly Clarkson and patience. It took weight gain, weight loss and painful sessions in therapy.

If my life were a movie, it would be more of a tragic comedy than a horror cum thriller. But it sure does take its cues from one. You know that final act during which the protagonist thinks they have escaped the plane crash/curse/masked killer, only to find out that endings are never neat, finished with a satin bow? My final act delayed by a year.

"Had I missed him so much I willed him into my afternoon? Was he a phantom, or a phantom of my imagination?"

June 2017. I can finally say with confidence that I'm in a good place. My career is thriving, I no longer feel lonely alone and though he couldn't keep to his promise, Geoffrey Chaucer could. Time is indeed magic — it heals all wounds. Romantic wouldn't it be then, to say that I was 100 percent in my element when Preston showed up again.

I was with company when he got in line at Park Bench Deli. A ghost he wasn't then, only a stranger I used to know. He was at arm's length. Yet, it took me more than a glance to place the long lashes, the broad shoulders, the strong nose. He looked me square in the face, and I him. His eyes were empty as it met mine, and while I can sense myself muster a small smile in return for his, I knew it failed to reach my eyes too. The awkwardness was as palpable as my accelerating heart rate. Perhaps because he wanted to make an escape but the cramped space and his lunch buddy rendered his cowardice impossible; perhaps because so much time had passed, and so much had gone unsaid, there was no point in trying anymore. I don't remember who said hi first. This followed.

Me: How are you?
Preston: I'm good.
Me: I didn't know you worked in the area.
Preston: Yeah. Yeah I do.

I nodded and slowly drifted my attention back to my colleagues, who were oblivious to our conversation. I silently thanked a God I'm not sure I believe in, and prayed that he wouldn't stay to eat the sandwich he was about to order. He didn't. And as make a final scan around the four walls — covertly of course — I was glad that he had walked away from me, for the second time.

This time, I let him go.

*Names have been changed.
Tune in to the next entry on 29 June.