Tremors

Although surrounded by the Pacific Ring of Fire, Singapore is not prone to earthquakes as it is shielded by other countries. But if a megaquake occurs off Sumatra (the nearest plate boundary), it could swing the buildings built over land reclaimed from the sea. The sea shelf that Singapore rests on will sink, and the land will be reclaimed by the sea.

Buffered by the bulwarks of compliance to conventional living, its residents carry on lives they don’t question. I returned to Singapore and started my job – I was not happy, I was not unhappy, I was getting by. It was a coveted job with an accelerated career track, I would be a bank vice president in 5 years if all went well. I would have the necessary money and credentials to move away, to be closer to the Grand Canyon in 5 years, if all went well. I threw myself in my work, constant busyness and make work helped me “cope”. But it was a gleaming façade for show, like the rest of Singapore, I was not taking care of myself nor my bipolar condition. On my days off, I explored the old neighborhoods with my camera, capturing the decaying remnants of the Singapore I remembered growing up. The in-between, the forgotten, the discarded resonated with my melancholy. I felt it was me.

Eric and I continued to correspond. He wrote about his job, his house, his ski trips, and his adamant refusal to visit. But Tommy did, he was in Singapore on a business trip and asked to meet. We went for dinner and chatted as we strolled along the concrete embankments of the Singapore river that I no longer recognized. The gleaming riverfront of tourist restaurants and shops was not the scene I drew as a child, lined with warehouses plied by bumboats painted with “eyes” in the belief it would help the boats “see”. The river reflected the conventionally “successful” me, but there was something missing that only I could see.

Our conversation changed when we arrived in his hotel room. Careful phrasing and halting pauses for thought behind drawn curtains. Unuttered feeling behind the easy mask of platitudes. I did not want to hurt him, nor get his hopes up. I don’t remember who uttered the last line “What’s love got to do with it, right?” and we parted without saying goodbye. That was the last time I saw him.

I saw Erik again during his organ recital tour across Asia, Singapore was one of his stops. I was still hesitant of my feelings, so I had my guard up at first. When I relented, it was as if we had never been apart. I even allowed him to take my photograph. Since Erik loved architecture, and his hosts had arranged visits to tourist attractions, I gave Erik the “critical” tour of Disneyland with the death penalty. We took the train to different housing estates and I pointed out how social engineering evolved and  embedded into the architecture of the Garden City, how the government deprioritized funding to areas that voted for the Opposition to ensure their majority. Erik continued on his organ tour and I continued with my life. There were no tears nor long goodbyes. No promises were made to each other.

Earthquake

It took an envelope in the mail. It took an ordinary envelope roughly 9 inches long and 4 inches wide to trigger a tsunami of fear and desperation that drowned me. The letter inside informed me I was being disciplined; I had to report to the army barracks in full battle gear in two weeks or be court martialed. This envelope, this epicenter unleashed my PTSD in full force. I screamed in agony. I flashed back. I tried to recover and manage it like I had in the past but the plates had slipped, releasing the pent up condition that had been suppressed. I raged, I wept, I swore, I wailed as I rode the shockwaves with peaks of mania, troughs of depression and hysteria in between until I collapsed unable to move.

The Singapore government is notorious for making its critics and dissenters disappear. The Garden City aggressively prunes its weeds and anything that sticks out. Were they getting back at me for openly criticizing them in university? Would I vanish once I am in the army barracks? I was sucked into a vortex of no escape except death. I sent Eric a short message, I needed someone I trusted, someone who understood me. He thought I was being dramatic, and said he heard I held hands with Tommy when we strolled along the Singapore river. There was no one, no way out. I planned to end it somewhere where I could not be found.

I received a chat message from Erik, “Hi, how are you doing?”. “I’m fine” I replied. No one is going to know, I am just going to kill myself. I was already dead inside. As we exchanged more messages, Erik sensed something was amiss. I was reluctant to reveal anything but he slowly coaxed the situation out of me. He was sympathetic. He asked what I planned to do. “Why can’t you leave?” he asked.  “I can’t. I don’t have the money to live abroad” I replied. Erik said he did not understand what I was going through, but he also did not want me to commit suicide. “If you decide to leave, you can stay with me” he offered.

I was outside my body for the next week or so as I battled waves of crippling PTSD and depression, the certainty of disappearing vs. the uncertainty of Erik’s offer. Erik continued to message me, asking if I had decided. Eric maintained radio silence. I managed to maintain the façade and continued working although I would not remember how I got from place to place, I would stumble into an empty bathroom in the office tower and collapse immobile in the stall.

When I finally had some clarity and made my decision, I had only 3 days to leave.

Time passed like 3 eternities. The part of my brain that saved me in the face of danger in the Grand Canyon and whitewater kayaking kicked in. I was completely dissociated. Part of me could make these decisions and perform actions while the shell of the person I was reeled in the aftershocks.

I applied for two weeks vacation from work and paid off as many bills as I could. I withdrew my savings and converted them into USD traveler’s checks. I also purchased two plane tickets, at two separate travel agencies, using a different name on my passport; one where I told people where I was going for vacation, and one to Seattle. Both flights left around the same time in the wee hours of the morning. I remember the panic attacks that overcame me while I stood in the corner making sure I was not being followed, before dashing across the road into each travel agency. I heard voices behind pillars, around corners, besides walls. Each step, each day, fearful I would be found.

I could not pack until just before my flight in case my family suspected or worried. I could not tell anyone where I was going. If the Singapore government came for me, I did not want them to be implicated. Better to be the unfilial ungrateful son who abandoned his family.

The only person who knew I was not returning was Marc, my best friend since Secondary school, the only person I trusted. We hung out together, played the piano, listened to music, and sang songs in my room. Marc did not know the extent of my condition nor of the situation, he only knew the dusting off the tip of the iceberg – I’d fallen for a classmate, I’m seeing a psychiatrist, I’m taking a solo trip to the US to think, I’m not returning on this trip. Like the safety valve on the pressure cooker, it was just enough release not to completely explode.

Marc knew me well enough not to probe further, but he wanted to see me. He came over and watched me in silence as I tried to fit my life into a backpack and a carry-on bag. I tried taking my music with me as it was intertwined with my emotional state and my condition. At my first cull, I ended up with over 200 CDs. I spent hours trying to cull it down in frustration.

Marc left at midnight. We stood across the doorway from each other, a chasm of unspoken confessions and unseen tears between us. “Bye” was all we could manage. I closed the door and finished packing. In the end all I took were some clothes, a camera and my negatives, and the hard drive from my computer to hopefully start over. I stole out of the flat around 1 am as my family slept and hailed a cab for the airport. I left a note on my bed as final misdirection so they would not worry “Left for holiday to Malaysia. Will be gone for two weeks.”

Erik told me to call him and keep him updated, so he would know in case I got taken. I am leaving the flat. I am getting in the cab. I am at the airport. I am checking in. I am going through security. I cleared security. I am at the gate. I am still at the gate. I am scared, I am still at the gate. They are calling for boarding. I am boarding the plane. I am on the plane. I am still on the plane. We kept the updates and line open until the plane was about to take off to the great annoyance of the cabin crew and the other passengers.

When the wheels lifted off the runway, I collapsed exhausted, jolting in and out of nightmares. At some point I awoke with no sense of time present or elapsed. I leaned against the window and watched the Pacific while the plane chased the sunrise. Was I scared? Was I excited? Was I numb? I fumbled for a pen and wrote.

From dawn to dawn I have ceaselessly flown
past cloud constellations scudding below
purple pink in the predawn glow.

Beneath them empty, featureless as me
I am bottomless awesome open sea

Flight (Psychedelic Dreams)

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