(Link to Part two: https://blackgirlinspore.com/2015/10/23/singapore-single-and-searching-water-no-get-enemy-2/)
Lillian nodded at the bald Chinese guy holding a small banner.
“Welcome to church. Have a great service!” his arm directed her up to the conference room.
He saw her every Sunday but his greetings remained the same – friendly yet distanced. You’d think he would recognise the black girl with the permanent Afro Pompadour and dangly, ethnic earrings.
No one ever gets too close, she sulked, her spirits sinking further.
She stepped off the escalator and walked across the gold and brown carpet, meeting yet more ushers.
By the time she reached the auditorium, her cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
It’s a lie, fake-smiling doesn’t lift your spirits. Otherwise, I’d be tap dancing by now.
Sometimes she wished she went to a smaller church. Somewhere she could just slip in at the back, stare into space and lick her wounds. Hers was a ‘mega-church’, with venues all over Singapore where you could watch the service. The Marina Bay Sands mall was her ‘local’, not too far from her shared apartment in Novena.
She was led to an empty seat near the front and handed a tiny communion cup.
At least I didn’t miss praise-worship. She dropped her handbag and knotted her Old Navy stars and stripes scarf round her neck.
Nausea washed over her. She sat down with a thump, her stillness in contrast to the congregation clapping around her.
It looked like she was praying, her eyes closed, fingers pressed on her forehead. But all she could do was play the image over and over. The image that had brought everything to a standstill on Friday night and completely ruined her weekend.
Tayo in a smart shirt, grinning like a cat who’d got the cream. His arm round that Kardashian-cow, her body squeezed into one of those bodycon spandex dresses meant to emphasize parts that should have been covered up. Parts that Lillian’s skinny, ectomorph frame didn’t have. Parts that brought back her childhood taunts of “Mosquito!”.
Keisha. The witch who stole the love of her life. Caramel Weave – Instagram Ho -‘I love me an African brother’ – Keisha…
She was the girl you messed around with, the type you called up at three in the morning for a hook-up, not the woman you broke off your engagement for, Lillian choked back a sob.
But here Keisha was, twisting all over Tayo like a video girl on a pole, her left hand held up to the camera, the triumphant caption “I said yes!!!!!” scrawled below.
The same ring, he gave her the same ring, she shook her head in disbelief. He cheated on me and then he gave her my ring…
The woman who’d caused her to quit her well-paid, High School teaching position, take a badly-paid teaching job in a school on the other side of the world and cut off all ties with all their mutual friends, was now basking in 454 Facebook likes and a pre-wedding glory that used to be hers. And the final insult to injury came in the form of an email she’d received from her younger sister no more than an hour after seeing the post.
“Sis, I’ve been trying to Skype you! I didn’t want to tell you like this, but I want you to hear it from me…the bitch is pregnant. Four and a half months. Word is they’re trying to hush it up till after the wedding cos his folks don’t know. Can you call me back???”
Pregnant, engaged and with her man.
It’s all wrong, Father, it’s all wrong! I did everything right, I put him first, I took care of him. We went to church together, we prayed together, He was my Boaz, I was his Ruth!
She had barely heard a word of the sermon. Her pastor’s image flickered on the screen, dressed in one of his trendy black outfits, and as usual the congregation howled at his cheesy jokes. She tried to tune in, but his message, ‘Greater things are ahead’ felt like a sick joke.
She knew it was just an illusion, these carefully filtered and sharpened images on Facebook, but it still hurt. Would their engagement have stung as much if there was someone in her own life? Maybe not. But she’d never even gotten past the first date with someone here. Black guys, white guys, asian guys… she didn’t care but it was like the men here were so damn spoiled. They had so much choice and they knew it. She’d literally had a guy excuse himself in the middle of a date and start talking to another chick at the other end of the bar. It was crazy.
All she’d ever wanted was to get married and have babies. It really wasn’t that complicated. She didn’t even have high standards. She just wanted a decent guy who was ready to settle down, believed in God, had an artistic side, loved Obama and was open to her gluten, diary and meat free lifestyle. Was that too much to ask?
She leaned forward for the closing prayer.
Lord, if you would just give me a sign, I promise to be happy for Tayo and that… his future wife…well maybe not ‘happy’, but I promise to wish them well. Or least, to no longer hold onto any anger. I know you have better for me, she signed off, rising to her feet and following the exodus of worshippers through to the foyer.
Hundreds of Singaporean families flooded the large passageway, their children pouring in from the kids’ rooms. The traffic moved slowly, held up by strollers inching forward, their tiny inhabitants staring open-mouthed or fast asleep. She was surrounded by families, and had never felt more alone.
Moving more freely on the ground floor of the MBS mall, she headed for the sliding doors. She never looked at the store fronts anymore. The sparkle of diamond-crusted watches and exorbitantly priced leather bags held no allure. Every Sunday, she walked past Chanel, Gucci and Mulberry, and found it maddening that none of the clothes on the mannequin ever looked as appealing as they did in the posters.
The warm air wrapped around her, moistening her skin in a matter of seconds. She avoided the crowd of tourists gaping at the giant whirlpool of water gushing into the man-made cannal below, and turned right, walking her usual route home. It was a long walk, but she saved money and got some exercise. Double tick.
She never failed to be affected by the absence of life on the bay. There were no sea gulls harking, no sail boats gliding on the horizon, no little kid dangling his feet over a pier. Only more tourists sitting on the long stone steps – families from India, Korea, Thailand, the inevitable selfie stick stretched above their cheerful faces. A young Singaporean zipped along on one of those battery powered, wheeled scooters. And then of course, the couples, Chinese invariably, the boyfriend/husband in a bland, nondescript shirt allowing his female to shine in her short, flimsy outfit and tiny Chanel bag.
It was always the same, and she was getting tired of it. What was she doing here? Why was she halfway across the world from everything and everyone she loved? She missed her parents, she missed her sister, she missed California. Now more than ever, she needed her family.
Yes, she had some good friends. Dara and Lillian especially had become like sisters, and she could always depend on them for cocktails and a heart-to-heart. They’d holidayed to Hanoi and Phuket and managed not to kill each other, and through them she had met almost all her friends here, including Bayo and Kike, a married couple. But apart from them, what did she really have keeping-
She came to stop.
Bayo and Kike. It was their son’s second birthday today!
She looked at her watch. It was nearly 5. She should have gone to an earlier service. She cringed at the memory of all Kike’s emails and group texts, regularly reminding them about the barbecue at their condo and that once again, presents were not required.
Sure, no problem when you’re rolling in it. She did a 180 and headed back into the dome-shaped mall. There was no way she was turning up empty-handed. Bayo may be Head of Asset Management at his company and one of Forbes 100 Young Africans to look out for, but she still had dignity, even on her paltry teacher salary.
A quick glance at the mall directory, and she picked up her pace. She needed to get to the basement.
She rushed to the nearest escalator.
“Excuse me!” she huffed at the people blocking her way. She trotted down the moving steps and approaching the last two, skipped over them onto the polished floor. She landed with a thud. Her ankle buckled to the side and she slid backwards, crashing down.
“Oh!” someone gasped behind her. Looking up, she saw a woman, one hand over her mouth. The woman, upside down from that angle, stepped over Lillian and speaking in Chinese, pulled her children off the escalator.
Mortified, Lillian sat up and shuffled away from the incoming traffic. It seemed everyone was staring at her, people at a nearby cafe, a family waiting for the glass elevator, shop assistants standing in the doorway of a Watsons pharmacy.
Damn Charles and Keith and their flimsy soles, Lillian reached for her handbag. Cheap piece of crap.
That was the last time she shopped there, no matter how cute their shoes were.
She stood up to a kneeling position, searching for her phone and grabbing scraps of paper, lip balm, coins and other bric-a-brac.
“Are you okay?” said a voice in an English accent. “I saw you fall, it looked nasty”.
She looked up and into the sweetest face, a look of concern cast over the striking features. A tall, black guy in a rolled up denim shirt and khaki trousers looked down at her. He put down the white store bag in his hand and leaned down to help her up.
“Yes…yes, thank you”, she stared at him.
“I was all the way at the other end, I can’t believe no one helped you. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine”, she went warm with fresh embarrassment at the thought that he’d seen everything. “People rarely help you out here like that, it’s okay”.
“That’s so strange…do you want to sit down? Maybe just in case.”
“You hear about people hitting their head and then blacking out hours later”, he persisted.
“I didn’t hit my head, just my…butt. I hit my butt”, she admitted, laughing.
“That’s almost as bad, that’s your spine”.
“Really, I’m fine.”
This guy was so sweet, but the attention was making her feel even more self-conscious.
“I’m fine, I actually have to be somewhere, I’m really late. That’s why I was rushing. It was my fault”.
“Okay, if you’re sure”, he didn’t look convinced, but took a polite step back and picked up his white bag. The logo caught her eye.
“Oh, that’s the store I was going to! How funny”, she pointed at the baby design.
“Really? Yeah, it’s over there”, he gestured. “I had to get a two year old a birthday present. I warn you, it’s extortionate. But I’ll walk you there if you like”.
“A two year old…is the birthday today? It’s not Bayo and Kike’s kid is it?”.
“Yes!” he looked surprised. “Bayo – that’s his name. We just met. How funny”.
“That’s nuts. I’m heading over there too. Kike’s a good friend of mine”.
“Excellent. Well, we can share a cab”, he smiled warmly. “You left the gift last minute too? Birds of a feather”.
“I know, pretty awful right?” she followed him in the direction of the store, matching his ambling pace. “I’ve been scatty lately. Sorry, I’m Lillian”.
“Lanre”, he shook her hand. “How long have you been in Singapore?”
“Just over a year. Not long. You?”
“I just got here. Is there quite a small black community? Does everyone know each other?”
“Nah, not really. It’s pretty big. I think people hang out in groups, the Nigerians hang together, us Americans socialise a lot too. Lanre’s a Nigerian name right?”
“Yes, Yoruba. You?”
“My parents are Yoruba too. But I grew up in the States”.
“Well, I grew up in the UK but I’m still Nigerian”, he smiled, looking a little puzzled.
“Yeah, sure, but I consider myself American”.
“You can be both” he laughed. “You remind me of this story my aunt told me when she went to New York a few years ago. She started chatting to this girl on the subway, and it turned out this girl was Nigerian too, or Nigerian-American like you.”
He steered her round the corner, his hand gently touching the small of her back. She felt the pressure long after his hand was gone. She wondered if he even realized what he’d just done, but it seemed absentminded, a habit almost.
“So she asks this girl where she’s from and she says New York. “No”, my aunt says. “Where are you really from?” And the girl starts getting heated, says her parents are Nigerian but she was born in New York, so she’s from New York.
“’So if you were born on this train, would you be from this train?’ my aunt asks her”.
Lillian burst out laughing, almost doubling over.
“So where are you from?” he asked again, chuckling.
She wiped the tear trickling down her cheek, her laughter trailing off.
When had she laughed so uncontrollably, not caring what people thought or if they were watching?
There was something about this guy’s ease and spirit that completely relaxed her. For the first time since Friday, the image that had tormented her was gone, replaced with the picture of two strangers arguing on a train.
“I guess I’m still on that train”, she shrugged, a moment of honesty catching her off-guard. “Trying to figure out where I’m from and where I’m going”.
They chatted nonstop – at the taxi rank, in the backseat – barely noticing a minute of the journey. London, California, Nigerian parents – they talked about everything, discovering a shared love of The Good Wife and Chimamanda Adichie. Work was barely mentioned, their professions exchanged in passing.
The taxi drove up Grange road, the long hill off Orchard and turned into an enclave of exclusive, luxury condos. It pulled up at the gate, four cylindrical towers looming overhead, giant metal discs on their roofs. Each one was twenty feet high, each floor rimmed with a glass balcony. From afar they looked like huge venting systems.
“Which unit?”, the security guard poked his head out the window.
“19-03. Tower C”, Lillian replied cheerfully.
The taxi dropped them outside the lobby, and Lillian led the way to the pool in the middle of the towers. They could hear children giggling and splashing.
“Marco!”, someone called.
“Polo”, children’s voices squealed back.
The smell of barbecued meat and smoky fumes ignited rumblings in Lillian’s stomach. She gave Lanre a shy smile as they walked down the stone steps and approached the large group of people by the barbecue pit.
He didn’t smile back. In fact, he didn’t even look at her. Frowning, she tried to follow his gaze. She recognised Amaka’s solid build reclining on a deck chair, her halter neck dress showing her full bosom to full effect.
“Oh, my friend Amaka’s here. You should meet her”, she touched his arm lightly, curious about his silence.
Amaka leaned back in her chair to reveal Dara beside her, sipping from a can.
“Dara’s here as well, great! She’s a good person to know, she’s a lawyer too”, Lillian felt so pleased at this unexpected opportunity to show off her new stranger, and at the same time indulge in some hushed gossip. For once, she didn’t feel like awkward or pathetic. She felt confident, the type of woman who could attract a guy like Lanre.
She was so excited that she didn’t notice the look on his face or hear the strangled sound that escaped from his throat.
“Hey girls!”, she gave her friends a little wave and watched the friendly smile on Dara’s face disappear.
“Oh, hi…”, Dara looked past Lillian.
Lillian did a double take. “You know each other?”
Before Lanre could speak, Amaka pushed her shades on top of her head, revealing eyes as wide as her mouth was open.
Lillian looked from face to face. That familiar cloak of insecurity threatened to smother her again. She took a small breath, shrugged it off and stood a little taller.
She wasn’t about to lose.