Wednesday 17 February
2:05 pm. Worked through lunch. No respite from the flurry of emails, each titled “URGENT” with a varying number of exclamation marks appended, each for a different closing scheduled in the next two weeks. Cannot afford to dash out and grab sandwich but must eat as stomach is now emitting weird hobbit growls that elicit chuckles from Suresh, who has ordered a healthful vegetarian meal before lunch hour. Can’t believe that I had to eat a candy bar from the office vending machine again. How is anyone supposed to stay slim in this job once you are past your 20s? Everything just congeals in fat rolls stored in the thighs and around the waist, in internal fat purses that your cells now carry. Briefly fantasize about suing law firm for not providing healthful food and snack options, like Google or similar tech companies with their bean bags and sprawling cafeterias where one can order sea bass or other line-caught and gently massaged fish, with a side of organic [insert name of trendy root vegetable] crisps.
Ooh. WhatsApp message from Linda. I surreptitiously grabbed my phone and tried to read it under a binder of case notes.
Ladies night at Little Green Aliens. Up for it?
I typed back:
Who else is coming?
Just you, me, Ben the investment banker, Filipino Jason and Valerie from the art gallery
Whenever lawyers hang out with non-lawyers, they feel compelled to flesh out details of said non-lawyer’s occupation, in the manner of someone describing a rare, exotic animal.
Cool. Am in. C U dere.
Stared at sentence before retyping it to read:
See you there.
Felt very old.
The five of us, Linda, Ben Wallich, Valerie Gomez, Jason Sy Garcia and I, met after work at Little Green Alien, one of those rare nights when I’m out of the office by 7:30 pm., surprising even Suresh. Being super competitive, both Suresh and I are facing off in an escalating Office Face-Time Battle, where we stay at work way longer than necessary with no tasks to complete except to score Brownie points with our own overworked and unhappy boss. I think I have a good lead over him, though, since he has a terrible future deficit to make up for in his Face-Time Piggy Bank — Kai told me he had applied for two weeks of leave this September so he can start scouting for locations for his wedding, slated for next August. Which means he must bill like crazy the next two quarters if he wants to beat me for this financial year. Ha! Serves him right for getting married and having someone who loves him!
LGA was one of those hipster “secret” speakeasy cocktail bars with mixologists so sanguinely youthful that you start expressing breast milk at the sight of them. Linda was fond of expensive designer cocktails with exotic ingredients, which obviously cost a lot of money, but since she was able to afford it and doesn’t mind extending that privilege to all of us, we graciously allow her to ply us with drinks. Monday night at LGA meant two-for-one cocktails, and despite the fact that I had a closing in four days, I was downing them like there was no tomorrow. By the second round even I, with my hardened lawyer’s liver, was feeling a pleasant, will-snog-anyone-who-asks-me high. Well, anyone except the man in the suit over there with the sausage lips. Or his friend with the oily comb-over. Reality can be such a literal buzzkill.
“Challenge for today: name the most unfortunate adopted English names you have ever come across,” Jason was saying. “Winner gets a cocktail on me.”
Jason was Linda’s friend, a paralegal, and one of the six Jasons we knew. If I recall correctly, I think she went into a gym one day and chatted with him at the drinking fountain, and he grafted himself onto her on the way out and never really left; she had that effect on men, especially gay men. To distinguish him from the rest, somehow instead of calling him “Paralegal Jason” we went with “Filipino Jason” and now it’s too late and it has stuck as a rather unfortunate nickname (although “Paralegal Jason” was perhaps worse, all things considered — I am quoting Linda here). He’s quite a bit younger and single, which is surprising considering that he’s gorgeous, charming, cultured and very well put-together in the vein of a Ken doll or one of the leads from Suits, all lean Muay Thai muscles and beautifully tailored clothes. Linda theorized that he’s gay or asexual since women are routinely throwing themselves at him and getting rebuffed, but the group as a whole is giving him the space to tells us in his own time, or never — we’re not fussed.
“Syphilis Tan!” Linda shouted, unconcerned with decorum.
I snorted. “Urban legend, surely.”
“I’m dead serious. My friend from Hong Kong taught an ESL student with that very name.”
Jason shrugged. “Meh. Next.”
“Colleague in Shanghai once told me about a Milky Chin,” said Ben, another drinking buddy of ours who flirted with Linda so shamelessly that it was amusing. Ben was Welsh, mousy-haired, bug-eyed and a partner in a large investment bank; he was a little bizarre on most days, eager as he was to discuss conspiracy theories on every subject under the sun, but he was entertaining enough that we kept him on as our Token White Friend.
“Ouch, poor woman,” Jason said.
“Milky Chin belonged to a guy, oi oi oi!” Ben said.
Jason groaned. “That is a good one, I’ll give you that. Ben is in the lead!”
“I’ve seen Teorem being used,” Valerie Gomez said. “And Gemini!”
“Refrigerator Chan,” Linda said, her eyes bulging in competition.
“I’ve got one,” Valerie cried. “Ivanna Wang.”
“Now you’re just making shit up,” Jason said.
“Like hell I am,” Valerie said, indignant. Or as much as she could show indignity. Valerie, who is Singaporean and of Peranakan-Indian descent, was in her 40s (we’re guessing — her real age remains a mystery as tightly guarded as the Vatican secret archives); her main goal in life was to look like a 25-year-old, something she managed to do only under dim, hipster cocktail bar lighting, which was precisely the kind LGA had. The woman was more than a tad addicted to Botox and fillers. According to Linda, Valerie’s mom was a former beauty queen and Valerie had been raised to think that beauty was to be worshipped above all, in women and men. Other than that, she was a fun person to hang out with, though I’d forbidden Linda from inviting her along for any of our daylight jaunts; it would be too traumatizing, like finding out the pop star you idolized in your teens has become a grandmother. “I swear it on my mother’s life.”
“Please don’t,” Jason said, wincing. Catholic and half-Chinese, Jason was extremely superstitious.
“OK, fine, on my future children’s lives,” Valerie said gamely.
The group pretended not to hear this. It got awkward when Valerie said things like this. She was so excited when Fann Wong, a local celebrity, conceived after 40, and was happier than a dog with two tails when she found out Sophie B. Hawkins had a child at age 50. The way Valerie saw it, this meant that it was entirely possible that she would be able to replicate that result. It was optimism in its purest form — the scary, untethered-to-reality kind. The kind that can make you a good dictator.
Not having a very good poker face, I made my excuses and fled. As is my fate, the queue to the single, unisex toilet was seven deep and all female. Thank goodness I always gave myself some “wee-way” (yes, I know, I went there). I slumped against the wall, pulled out my phone and launched Sponk, just to see who was around. I scrolled through the available profiles, chose a few non-serial-killer-looking types without expecting results, then grew bored and began to play Candy Crush, which, by the way, I am in no way addicted to.
“Do you come here often?” someone said, startling me before I could finish a level.
I looked up, annoyed, to find a young man smiling at me. This is how you know you’re old: when you see anyone younger than you and you think “this young *expletive*” instead of the standard adjective-free form. Thinking that he had mistaken me for someone else, I scowled and said, “I’m sorry?”
“Oh, s-sorry,” the poor sod stammered. “I just meant — I mean, I just … I mean, er, we Sponked?”
I looked down at my screen and there he was, my Sponk partner. I froze. I hadn’t actually thought it would happen so quickly.
He gathered himself and pointed at the queue. “Do you come here often?” he blurted again.
I raised my eyebrow. “You mean, do I go to the toilet often?” I didn’t bother lowering my voice. Several women snickered.
“Ah,” said the boy, because that’s what he was, a sleek, sparkly eyed kid who looked like he’d been poured into his tight jeans and slim-cut shirt. He had the shaved sides and longish top haircut and ironic clear-lensed, tortoiseshell, round glasses all boys seemed to sport like uniforms these days, although I had to admit he was not bad-looking, with a lean, toned swimmer’s body. With good height, too. “I see how that can be confusing. Let me try again.” Holding my eyes, he took two giant steps back, away from the direction of the toilet. “There. So. Hi there. I couldn’t help noticing we matched on Sponk. Do you come to LGA, in the general sense and not the toilet per se, often?”
Ack. So he was really trying to pick me up. One of the girls was not very discreetly pointing her phone in my direction, filming the whole thing, for fuck’s sake. I turned my back on her and moved directly in front of teenage Casanova to save him the embarrassment of being the unwitting subject of a viral video. “Look, kid, I’m too old for you, so, you know, go find some other age-appropriate target through Pounder or whatever hookup app you people use these days,” I said shortly, before dropping my gaze back to my beloved, the phone.
I pretended to scroll through the Daily Mail, scanning celebrity headlines intently and hoping he would go away. After several seconds of scrolling, I looked up again to find him still smiling at me in his oblique way. What was his problem? I was old enough to be his mom. Wasn’t there anyone else his age to chat up? “What do you want?” I said, with some exasperation. I now needed the loo — I mean, toilet. Badly.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he said through his never-faltering, Edward Cullen-esque smile.
“Doesn’t matter. Let me buy you a drink anyway. What would you like? Gin? No, let me guess. Whiskey, single malt. A Highlander.” He squinted at me. “No, an Islay. Peaty and smoky.”
Ooh, yum, that did sound good. I mentally slapped myself and focused on the task at hand. “Let me get this straight: you want to spend money on an older woman who is not interested in you?”
He shrugged. “I’ll never say die until I’m dead.”
“That’s just … that’s illogi — never mind. Go wait by the bar. Let the lady use the loo first.”
He actually bowed a little before he left. I turned back to face the queue. The women in it were looking at me with respect or jealousy. “Kids, right,” I said to no one in particular, to icy stares all around.
I was whistling as I walked back across the crowded room to the bar when I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.
Ivan. By the bar. Wearing a white polo and slim-cut, dark-wash jeans. With his arm around what could only be described as someone other than me, a stick figure girl in a bad wig, if that was her real hair.
I mean, Ivan never wore jeans when he was with me; he considered them an abomination of the fashion industry (neither formal nor casual enough, plus too hot for Singaporean weather).
He looked agonizingly happy.
I ducked behind a passing waiter, held his arms to pin him to the spot, and peered around him. “Stop moving,” I hissed.
“Erm, ma’am” — which is the polite, formal equivalent of “auntie” — “I have to serve dr—”
“I’ll give you 20 dollars if you stay still for five minutes,” I pleaded.
He shrugged and stood there, while I observed my prey as nonchalantly as I could.
Fucking H. She was young.
Some of the things Ivan said to me the night we agreed, mutually, to break up, boomed in my head: You can’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. How can you blame me when you’re never around? I want a fam—
The Slimy Young Thing touched his arm, and I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to pick her up and dunk her into the nearest dumpster. Now I am a pacifist, of course. But try telling that to my heart.
They didn’t look like they were on a first date. Who was she? There was no way to know without being a proactive stalker. I had cut all social media ties with him, blocked him on WhatsApp, severed ties with all the mutual friends we had (well, most of them were his) and deleted all his phone numbers [personal, Work 1, Work 2 and Work 3 (landline)]. Not that I wanted to know who she was, of course.
Just as I was ready to walk over and casually bump into them so that I could be introduced, he put his arm around her waist and walked her out of the bar.
“No,” I whispered in agony.
“Ma’am, can I go now?” the server said tightly.
“Sorry,” I muttered. I opened my wallet to extract the money I owed him, but he waved the bills away.
“You look like you'll need it tonight. That, or a fresh start,” he remarked, before walking away.
I heard him through a fog. I couldn’t believe it — Ivan had moved on. First. With a rather age-inappropriate palate cleanser of a girl. What about me? Why was I still stuck in some weird, monkish state of celibacy when I had wasted eight years of my life on him already?
There are always winners and losers in a breakup. And I am not a loser, not in any sense. I should get a move on, too. Starting tonight. I’ll show him age-inappropriateness, the jeans-wearing bastard.
When I rejoined the others to grab my work bag, the boy who hit on me was still waiting by the bar with an elbow planted on the countertop and no phone in sight, which sort of endeared him to me. He saw me and waved cheerily, the way an innocent child might at a strange man in a stained house robe standing in front of what appears to be a totally normal ice cream truck (I do realize I am the strange man in this scenario).
“Who is that yummy morsel?” Valerie stage-whispered, which was enough to send me to the bar just to get away from her and the creepy realization that Valerie was biologically old enough to be his grandmother.
“Let’s start again. My name is Orson Leong,” he said, offering me a surprisingly assured handshake. “What’s yours?”
“Andrea,” I said. I motioned the bartender over and gave him my order. “I’d like a Laphroaig, 21 years old, neat.” I turned to Orson, expecting him to be weirded out by the fact that my drink was older than him. But he was unfazed. He ordered a beer, and when the bartender returned, he took out his credit card and waved mine away. “I’m 23, you know. I can afford to buy a pretty lady a drink.”
“And I’m 33,” I told him aggressively, probably to cover up the fact that I was pleased that he was not as young as I’d originally made him out to be, which was 18. I probably needed glasses, perhaps due to the fact that I was (non-addictively) playing Candy Crush in my free time. “Jesus’s age, when he died,” I added, before I could stop myself.
“OK, Andrea, now that we have the basics covered, why don’t we go to that quiet little corner over there away from your staring clique, and you can tell me more about yourself?”
I nodded and he guided me by my elbow to a secluded nook by the electronic jukebox. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the dumbstruck faces of my friends turn to follow me across the room; Valerie’s looked especially comical since she had long ago lost the capacity to lift her eyebrows. I grinned and gave them a cheery wave. Let them wonder. Let them take lots of photos. That I will definitely post on Facebook publicly later.
I didn’t expect to enjoy hanging out with Orson, but I did. Orson was easygoing and had an unassuming way of asking questions with his dimpled smile that made me feel comfortable revealing things about myself that I would usually reserve for closer friends. And even though he was much younger, we conversed across a wide array of subjects with ease. I found out that Orson was working in an advertising firm as a copywriter; he read voraciously and counted Rumi and Deborah Landau among his favorite poets (pro); his favorite tipple was gin (meh); he was a dog person (hmm); and he hated EDM and reality TV (pro!).
Sometime around 10 pm I made my excuses to leave, even though I was not at all tired but I was dangerously tipsy and considering asking him to come up to my place for a shag (I managed to restrain myself by using the clever trick of thinking of spiders every time I thought of kissing him, something I had learned about from a listicle on Aversion Therapy 101). Being the gentleman that he was, he walked me to the taxi stand (a queue almost 20 people long, despite the prevalence of ride-hailing apps). I was starting to feel melancholy as the alcoholic buzz began to fade.
“Will I see you again, Andrea?” he asked, his eyes going full-puppy on me.
“Never!” is what I should have said — he was just not right for me, and I had already taken enough selfies with him to let anyone looking know that I was a hot commodity. Instead, I meekly said, “I can’t.” Pathetic. No wonder I wasn’t partner yet.
“Why not?” he asked. He was standing very close to me and I could smell his cologne and stale tobacco and sweat.
“Not a good idea,” I said to his shoulder. I was very aware of the heat emanating from him.
“It’s the New Year,” was his reply near my earlobe. And then his lips were on mine before I could protest: They tasted amazing, young and perky, belonging to someone who didn’t need afternoon naps. It was all I could do not to chew on them, driven as I was by hormones — and hunger.
Then he broke the kiss.
“I’m sorry if I came on too strong,” he said. “It just came over me. I’m not usually like this.”
I nodded, completely dumbstruck. The queue shuffled forward. It was almost my turn.
“Listen, I’d like to see you again. Can I have your number please?”
He gave me his card, as my phone had died, and I gave him my number, my real one, even my surname. Now he can find me on the internet. Shit just became real.
When my cab arrived, he opened the door and I got in. “Good night, Andrea. I’ll text you.” No games, just a promise. Such maturity, such manliness, such round buttocks. Against my will, I began to hope that I would, indeed, see him again.
11:45 pm. Home. Charged my phone, turned it on to find 40-plus feverish WhatsApp texts from the LGA crew group chat, with Linda’s texts being the lewdest.
“Who’s Mr. Hot Stuff?” was the general cri de coeur. I decided to let them simmer. I didn’t want to talk to them about the night when I was back to being ambivalent about seeing Orson again. I mean, where could this relationship really go? We were at totally different stages of our lives; he was probably just interested in shagging as many willing people he could get, while I was interested in finding a suitable man for a life partner, which is difficult enough as it is. Let’s be honest: the chances of finding your true love when you’re almost in your mid-30s are a little bleak — most of the good ones are taken, and the ones that are still on the shelf and older than you are often riddled with manufacturing or third-party defects, some so well camouflaged that you could be dating them for 10 months before you accidentally find their shoebox of toenail clippings or their collection of vintage porn. I shouldn’t waste time on him when I was looking for Mr. Right — the return on investment seemed too low to be worth the outsize risk of wasting precious time — right?
On the other hand, I had spent eight years with Ivan, and to what avail?
Hey gorgeous lunch or dins next Wednesday 24th K? unless u hv plans alrdy … *three emojis with heart eyes*
It was Millennial Orson. What to do, what to do.
I checked my calendar and launched Candy Crush, just a quick game thereof; no biggie, it helps me think.
Three in the morning. Oops.
 A Singlish expression, meaning “I’ll never admit defeat.”
From LAST TANG STANDING by Lauren Ho published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.
Author Website: https://hellolaurenho.com/
For more information: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/624876/last-tang-standing-by-la...
Cover Image: Courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons