This Is How The Trouble Starts
“I know this is strange, but if I stayed an extra day, would you be available tomorrow?”
–Yours truly, in a note to Randy Kaplan.
Because I like keeping things simple, I didn’t have many rules for this trip: just staying open for all possibilities and going with the flow. Oh yeah, and making decisions with the head on my shoulders, not the one in my pants. Even before I left on the trip I resolved I wouldn’t wait around for a woman in hopes of a relationship. That’s not what this trip was about. It was about solo travel and making it on my own. That’s why I didn’t look back when I parted ways with a Seattleite I was attracted to in New Zealand: I kept moving.
Although I had given up keeping kosher during the trip, it didn’t mean I would ignore my other rules. Those rules are best summed up by a clergyman in the play “The Sermon” when he says, “Be good, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and clean up when you’re done.”
I also have another rule that never changes. Never try to break up a relationship. To me, it’s bad form, and it’s just not done. Okay, I know it’s done. It’s just not right.
That’s why I’m not sure what the hell happened in Singapore.
It started innocently enough. I asked a beautiful 31 year-old woman out for a date, not knowing what we were going to do and the next thing I knew I found myself trying to persuade her to leave a boyfriend who had already left her. It didn’t happen that quickly, of course, but that’s the way it played itself out.
We met around noon at my favorite hangout, the Oriel Cafe, and spent an hour figuring out what to do. Part of the problem was that it was Good Friday, and many of the places I suggested were closed. I kept pushing for visits to local museums, but she wasn’t interested. She said it was too bad a local cricket tournament was sold out or we could have gone there. Odd, she didn’t strike me as a sports fan. Granted, sitting in lawn chairs watching men in starched white uniforms hitting a wicket and smartly running along an extremely short base path seems much more genteel than, say, yelling “you suck” at an umpire during a baseball game after a bad call, cheering a hockey player body checking an opponent, or engaging in soccer hooliganism, but it still surprised me. I guess I saw her as being above all that.
I admit I wasn’t crushed when I learned the tournament was sold out. Cricket may be close to baseball, but I knew it wouldn’t hold my interest for long. Heck, baseball isn’t a thrill a minute, either. I’ve long joked no other sport can jam-pack a half hour of action into three hours the way baseball can, but at least it’s easy to predict how long a game will take. If the pitchers are good and get batters out quickly, the game may take two-and-a-half hours. As long as there isn’t a tie, even a slow game won’t last more than three-and-a-half hours. On the other hand, it’s not all that unusual for a single game of cricket to take a week, for reasons that have been explained to me numerous times, but still make no damn sense.
After much debate we finally wandered to Singapore’s rapidly vanishing Chinatown. Before we got there, however, we gravitated toward the Padong, the center of the old Colonial District, where the cricket tournament was being held. At this point I began wondering if Randi had some sort of cricket addiction–until she told me her father was the president of Singapore’s Cricket Club, and was responsible for arranging the first-ever international tournament played in the city. I soon found myself standing in the lobby of the Cricket Club waiting for Randi to return from seeing how her father was doing and wondering if I’d been dumped. Just as I was about to give up, she returned with a VIP pass so I would be able to get in to see the tournament. As far as I was concerned, the pass was a mixed blessing because it obligated me to watch a sport that didn’t interest me. Fortunately, a mid-day rainstorm had so soaked the field that the India-Pakistan game had been suspended and the crowd was waiting for a 3:15 announcement on a possible postponement.
So, off we went, looking for what remained of a Chinatown district that hadn’t yet been redeveloped by that fun-loving government htat brought you canings as a form of corporal punishment. I’m still not sure why the country’s officials found it necessary to fix an area that wasn’t broken unless it’s their need to be relentlessly, almost pathologically up-to-date.
After spending an hour roaming, we returned to the Padong to discover the game was on again. In addition, thanks to a complex mathematical formula that would have confused all those famous Greek math guys such as Pythagoras, Copernicus, Rhombus, Remus and Romulus, and Amos & Andy, the Pakistanis only needed to score 181 runs to beat the Indians, and they were well on their way to doing so. We stuck around to see Pakistan whip India’s butt, then headed to the end of our.. whatever it was.
I knew Randi had to get home quick so she could dress for the Gala Cricket Dinner where her father was speaking. Since she needed to be there by 7, we took the subway instead of walking. Not wanting to inconvenience her, I planned to say goodbye on the subway and get off at the stop before hers, so I could collect my stuff and catch my bus. When Randi heard this she said she would get off at my stop. Since I was in no rush, however, I offered to get off at her stop to walk her home.
As we walked along she said she felt she had to tell me about her boyfriend, or rather, her ex-boyfriend. The unceremonious break-up had taken place within the last few weeks when he walked out on her in Hong Kong after she began talking about getting a job there so she could watch the Chinese take-over July 1, 1997. While it may have been the ideal place for a documentarian wanting to witness history, it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Instead, he’d been trying to convince her to move to San Francisco so he could be with his family and they could finally get married after a year of dating. In response, I told her about my situation with my now-ex girlfriend and how that had played itself out.
By the time our stories were done, we were at her door and I was ready to say goodbye. As I paused to do so, she invited me up. This was strange. I knew everyone would be scrambling to get dressed and there she was inviting grungy-looking me clad in shorts and a pullover sweatshirt. It’s almost as if she didn’t want to say goodbye. I’m not sure I did, either. As she headed out the door she told me I was welcome to stay. When I told her all I needed were directions back to Orchard Road she said I could take a cab with her and she’d have the driver drop me off.
Which she didn’t.
By this time, I knew Singapore well enough to realize there were several places where she could have told the driver to stop the cab and let me out, but she didn’t. She just let it keep going. As we got out of at the Singapore Holiday Inn (which is more upscale than it sounds), we began saying our good-byes and I said I wanted to kiss her but wasn’t quite sure if it was a good idea after all she had told me. She allowed as how it was up to me. I kissed her despite my misgivings, surviving my most public door scene ever, then went on my merry way to get my backpack and catch the bus to Kuala Lumpur.
Since it was only 8 p.m., I stopped at Oriel Cafe to eat, read and kill the two hours remaining before I had to catch my bus. The more I thought about Randi, however, the more reluctant I was to leave. At 9:19 (15 minutes before I was due to leave to catch my bus) I called the Holiday Inn to leave a message for her, saying, “I know this is strange, but if I stayed an extra day, would you be available tomorrow?” I also left the number of Oriel Cafe on the message. Outside of my experiences during a bad night in Sumatra, the next 15 minutes were the longest of the trip. When the wait stretched into 18 minutes, I hoisted my backpack and headed out the door. As I hit the sidewalk, I heard the owner call my name.
It was Randi on the phone.
We spent most of the following afternoon talking as we rode bikes around a small recreational island across the Straits of Johor from Eastern Singapore. When we stopped for a snack, she broke the news. Her boyfriend had called and was reconsidering. He said he might be willing to go to Hong Kong with her even though he didn’t have a job. She admitted she wasn’t sure about her future with Frank, but didn’t want to be seeing two men. In response, I told her I enjoyed being with her but that since I was on the road I could only deal with now, and didn’t really care about that other stuff. In hindsight I now realize it sounded as though I was asking her to cheat on her boyfriend with a sleazy one-night stand when I wasn’t. I also apologized for muddying the waters when she was going through emotional turmoil.
We spent the next hour swapping stories about relationships until we got to Frank. She had met him when she took a squash class in Atlanta, they had gone out a couple of times and she had no idea he was even interested her until the night he tried to kiss her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t expecting the move and she zigged when he zigged, leaving the kiss short of its intended target. They moved in together shortly after, then moved to Boston. By the time I met her, they’d been together a year-and-a-half, and Frank felt that was long enough. Randi wasn’t so sure. She said it would have been easier for her to make up her mind if he had been a jerk like many of the guys she had dated, but he wasn’t. In fact, she knew he was a great guy who would make a good husband and a great father. He was loyal, trustworthy, respectful, well mannered and good at fetching sticks… Okay, so I added that last one, but as nice as those things are, her description hardly added up to a glowing recommendation or impassioned defense. Instead, her words sounded like those of a union leader holding his nose as he endorsed a presidential candidate. I could even imagine someone like Lane Kirkland summing it up, saying, “He doesn’t have much charisma and he doesn’t inflame our passions, but he’d make a good president and an acceptable commander-in-chief…” Such language works in politics, but not dating.
If Randi had been more enthusiastic, I would have walked away, but she hadn’t, so I couldn’t. I wasn’t trying to be a knight sweeping her off her feet; I was just a guy chasing after a beautiful woman whom was on the brink of a big mistake. Of course, I believed that I, (itinerant, unemployed freelance writer that I was) had so much more to offer. Although I had never made a serious effort to steal a woman from someone else, I was quickly coming to realize it’s not possible to steal what won’t be stolen and I was getting the impression that she wouldn’t necessarily have minded. Why else would she have put up someone who was so obviously chasing her?
Although I could have left after the date was over, I told myself I wasn’t sticking around for Randi, I was staying because the next day was Easter and it wouldn’t be possible to find a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. Yeah, right. And, as the song says, I own some ocean front property in Arizona.
Since Easter is only a one-day holiday, I knew I would run out of excuses the following day, so I decided to leave on the Monday night bus, regardless of what happened. I was prepared for anything because I realized there were still things I wanted to say.
We met at the cricket finals at 2 and I sat in a VIP tent with her family as we watched the Sri Lankans kicking some serious Pakistani ass. With no batsmen out, the Sri Lankans had already scored 50 points and needed only 216 points to win. They looked set to stomp all over Pakistan in record time until the Pakistanis got the first and hottest batsmen out shortly after he scored 100 points. It was downhill from there. The Sri Lankans began sucking serious wind and only managed to come within 30 runs before they ran out of batsmen.
The only reason I remember all this is because it was the only thing I could focus on as I tried to figure out what to say. The tournament ended before I could say anything, however, and with the completion came the crowd’s mad scramble to rush the field and watch the awards ceremony. Ranndi offered me a ride to her father’s place, so the day wasn’t over yet.
Just as we reached the parking lot of her father’s apartment building, a torrential downpour began. Although the storm continued into the early evening, it didn’t bother me much. There were plenty of worse places I could have whiled away the time and I’d already spent time in several of them. As we waited for the rain to ease, I checked e-mail and sent a story on the Jews of Singapore back to Seattle’s Jewish newspaper while Randi worked the phone trying to reach sources to interview for a radio piece on the same subject. Then we hung out and talked about our lives until her calls came in. By the time she finished her interviews, I had only 10 minutes left before I had to leave.
As we took the elevator down to the lobby, I tried to set the record straight. I told her I had misspoken on a number of issues. I did care about the future and was interested in more than something with here and now. I also told her I’d lied about being sorry for contributing to the confusion she faced over her relationship with Frank. I wasn’t sorry and I knew that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had a chance with her. I also allowed that I’d said goodbye to a lot of people on the road, but this was the first time it hurt to do so.
In response, she said we would see each other again and gave me her e-mail address back in the States. It was a non-committal response, but better than nothing.
I puzzled over how she could put up with a guy who was so obviously chasing her when she was in such a state of emotional turmoil and she said she’d enjoyed my visit.
Given that things were so unresolved, I still wasn’t quite sure it was a good idea for us to kiss so I went to hug her as she went to kiss me. We kissed, and held hands. The kisses weren’t passionate. Instead, the pecks were more like bookmarks so I could remember where I left off next time I we met.
As I walked off into the rain to catch a taxi, I hoped there was a next time.
It felt good to move, especially after three days of agony. I can’t find any better way to explain it other than to say that hitting the road again was like stepping into a cold shower on a hot summer day and having it wash away my cares. I felt my worries drop away as the bus rumbled to the border with Malaysia and on to Kuala Lumpur, a place I had heard of in history classes when I was younger, but hadn’t thought of since.
The ride was easy, the bus good, the roads well maintained and the border crossing efficient. It would have been faster if I hadn’t gotten involved in an argument with a pop machine. One minute I was putting a dollar into the slot and waiting for a drink, the next I was smacking the contraption so I could get my dollar back–until I saw the bus leaving without me.
It’s hard to look graceful running after a fast-moving bus when you’ve got all your possessions in a pack on your back.
Although my bus quickly sped out of reach, I saw a second bus owned by the same company edging away from the curb so I caught the driver’s attention by smacking the side. He immediately understood, told me to get on and gave chase. The whole experience made me feel like an actor in a movie jumping on board yelling, “Follow that bus!”
The chase scene ended before it really began once a Malaysian man who had been sitting behind me noticed the only American passenger was missing and told the driver to stop.
Fortunately, the rest of the overnight bus ride was uneventful, and that’s a good thing: I don’t think I could have taken any more excitement.
And so I smiled as I felt the miles roll away beneath my feet as I listened to an Allan Sherman comedy tape in my Walkman telling me, “You need an analyst, a psycho-analyst….”