Fiction / February 2009 (Issue 6)

The Disappearance

by Yew Leong Lee

I wake up with a start to realize that my right hand is being crushed beneath my pillow, under the weight of my head. It feels numb. With much difficulty, I pull it out with my left hand and place it by the side of my body, as it should be, palm up. In the darkness of my bedroom, I feel my blood pulsing back into my hand; I test it slowly — lifting, then curling my fingers into a loose fist.

Knowing that in the morning, I will be new again.


At the airport, a Caucasian man is bidding farewell to his wife and daughter. They hug, first the man and his wife, following that, the man and his daughter. Then, an ill-timed manoeuvre: the wife leans forward to kiss the man, who bends down instead to pick up his luggage. The curve of her body, her feet strained in a tiptoe, her glossy lips meeting nothing, the surprise in her eyes. In the movies, it would be said that the actors lacked chemistry. But in real life, it is a moment rich in poignance.

Auguring nothing, of course. Next day, wife and daughter will read about a plane crash elsewhere. Not the plane he's on.


Sometimes I wonder if anything at all will happen to me. For 18 years, I've lived the ergonomic life here in Singapore, where nothing ever happens.

Except: one year ago, my best friend Greg ran away from home.

He took off while his family was away on some Caribbean cruise. The family would have had him along too, but he had his exams to study for. So while he was supposed to be studying, he planned his getaway. On the day he left, he took his passport from the family safe and drew out all the money from his bank account. Stealthily, without any word to his friends, he disappeared.

His family returned home the next day to their bungalow and found it in a spick and span condition. He had cleaned the whole house out and made it neater than it had ever been before. In the note he left behind, he said it was his way of making up to them for running away. He didn't ask for forgiveness. He didn't ask for understanding. He just asked them to take care of themselves and not to worry about him.

His mother called and asked, "Did he say anything to you?"

That was one year ago. He had said many, many things to me.


A few months ago, I entered a film-making course. For the final project, I asked Lily to help me. Lily is also a very old friend of mine, although she doesn't date as far back as Greg, whom I've known since I was five years old. I still remember when Greg and I first met we both hid behind our mothers' skirts; that's how bashful we were with each other at first. Once we overcame our shyness we became very good friends who confided in each other.

We were neighbours for ten years before our family finally moved away to our present apartment. However, since we had always been classmates in school, we still saw each other as much. Until he left, that is.

Lily, on the other hand, I've known since secondary school. She reminds you of the proverbial duckling that has yet to become a swan. When she takes off her glasses, removes her braces, and does something about her hair, she will be a beauty. She is short but stiletto heels can make up for it should she desire greater stature.

For the shoot, we've brought the camera equipment out to the Botanic Gardens. After finding the right spot, I set up the tripod, compose the shots, and focus the camera. Then I tell Lily to press the button and hold it for each scene I ask her to shoot.

Lily is incredulous when the whole shoot is over. "What was that all about?" she asks.

I had stood in front of a field. I had looked up to see that it was going to rain. I had opened my umbrella. It had rained. (For the rain scene we'd used a hose.) Then it had stopped raining. Where I had stood, a circle of dryness had formed. Then I had shut my umbrella and continued waiting. Until all the water had evaporated from the ground so it'd seemed that the circle had never been there. Only then had I left.


Lily is in love with me. Why else would she volunteer to help me with my film? She has examinations next Monday, all my friends in university do. I don't because I am not in university. I refused to enroll.

My parents nearly threw me out of the house for that. Why had I worked so hard for my 'A' level examinations if I hadn't wanted to pursue further education? What a waste. What's worse: what would they say to our relatives? The current story that goes around is that I have purposely deferred my studies from university for one year to travel and do some writing. Writing! That's a good one! I will never write for a living, not even for one year. Why bother? What is there to record?

The current "understanding" between my parents and me is that I will enter university next year. I can, but I won't.

Poor Lily, I hope she doesn't get hurt.


When I wake up the next morning, I see that it is one whole year later. Outside, the construction site I remember seeing from my bedroom window has vanished. The new office building in its place has glass elevators that zip up and down, ferrying people from floor to floor. I am transfixed by the glass elevators for a moment. From a distance, it almost seems as if the glass elevators decide who exits at which floor, who goes where.

Then, stumbling into the kitchen in my pyjamas, I see that my mother is preparing tapioca soup, which I hate. "Why didn't you wake me up?"I ask.

"Oh you were sleeping so soundly!" she beams.

Then she tells me that Lily has married and the fish in our aquarium have died. And then, "Have some tapioca soup!"


The fish in our aquarium would have died if I had really fallen asleep for one year. Only I would bother to feed the fish diligently, day after day. My mother has her potted plants that she waters every day. For my business-minded father, the newspapers he reads without fail.

Apart from one goldfish that Greg gave me, the rest are mine. Greg's goldfish is bigger than the rest, since it's older. The other day I was feeding the fish, watching Greg's goldfish in particular clamouring for the food pellets with the rest of the goldfish, I thought: That's funny. Because tropical goldfish usually don't live longer than a year.

I crouched forward, lowered myself so that I was eye-level with Greg's goldfish. It was quietly kneading its gills, anxiously averting its round fishy eyes. Under my breath, I whispered softly, "You should have died by now!"


I have been going to the airport in my spare time. No, I'm not crazy about planes. I like the airport, well it's Changi airport, for starters — the best airport in the world. It's comfortable and it's huge so you can always find your own spot of solitude. I go to the viewing gallery, where the planes taxi along the wide runways (a soothing sight) before taking off or after touching down. I go to the departure hall where I like to observe groups of people gathering to send off their loved ones. A necessary ritual before an absence.

And sometimes, if I can bear to, I go to the arrival hall where I sit and look away.


They never traced Greg's whereabouts nor did he write back to anyone. His disappearance was complete. He had taken a flight to New York on board some cheap airline, which had left Singapore on a Friday night, to be exact at 2310 hrs, 11 October, 1996 — that much had been traced. But where had he gone from New York? No one knew. With the estimated $20,000 he had withdrawn from his bank account, he could have gone anywhere and survived.


A memory of Greg when we were ten. We'd just discovered rock and roll so there we were, in my room, with the music turned up full blast to Richard Thompson's energetic anthem, "Tear-Stained Letter", careening round and round all dizzy, dizzy laughing like our lives depended on it — until of course, inexorably we fell into a heap of each other, mad with adrenaline rush, panting, panting. And suddenly my eye hurt real bad, maybe something had gotten into it, so I asked Greg to bring me a bottle of eyebath from the adjacent toilet which he did, and I cried I'm so weak, can you help me up I can't raise my arms let alone lift my head so he sat me up against the wall, poured the eyebath into a tael-shaped container until it was half-full and gingerly cupped the container over the eye that hurt as I leaned forward but suddenly, I couldn't help laughing, over God knows what? and shaking and writhing like an eel, and poor Greg, he was trying to keep the eyebath in, crying Stop, stop don't move! but I was beyond restraint, so the eyebath spilled out of the container he'd tried to cup over my eye, forming rivulets down my cheek, coursing into the mouth that I could not keep my laughter from spilling out of, and I drank it in, oh, I drank eyebath in my hysteria.


What did Greg say? He told me that he had been trying drugs. He said it over the phone, a few months before he disappeared. Not the hard drugs like cocaine, of course, he'd never go near those. Something like LSD. The first time he got high! He'd remembered. He had befriended someone in his neighbourhood, someone called Barry, I think. Barry had introduced him to it. Why not try it out? If you don't like it, you can stop at once. Barry had coaxed reasonably. At first he had been hesitant, Greg said. What if he grew addicted? But Barry was earnest, eyes shining keenly, eager to share the pleasure he himself had recently discovered. Come on, just once!

So Greg agreed. They went to Barry's house. From a drawer he kept locked, Barry fished out a packet of LSD — fine powdery substance you couldn't tell from flour. Grinning devilishly at Greg: here's our ticket to heaven!

Greg watched wide-eyed as Barry tapped the white powder into a glass of tap water. After helping themselves to it, they both lay down on the floor to wait for the LSD to kick in. From this point in the narration Greg grew effusive. "All of a sudden, the ceiling fan became a psychedelic spiral of colours, the chairs suddenly turned malleable! Barry had the TV on but the picture we saw we'd never seen before: various shapes of neon colours dancing around! And the mad screeching sound! All your senses sharpened to the point of pain."

All this time while I was letting him speak there was a certain dull sick feeling in my stomach. I wanted to put down the phone.

"You see things you have never seen before, things you never even thought were there! It's the first time I became so aware of what surrounds us! This isn't just it — what we see. You don't know, you can't know the world until you've left it. There's something else to this life, an unexplored dimension."

Then I asked. "But how do you know this is the true way of seeing life? How can it be, if it has to be so unnatural?"

Exasperated, Greg said "But it shows, doesn't it, that there is another way we have yet to test? Doesn't it?"


Tonight, I hear the cicadas screaming from outside. My hands and feet move in a flurry, in a feverish heat, stuffing clothes and toiletries into a suitcase, counting money, checking my passport. Then quietly and stealthily, I open the door of my room, suitcase in hand, to find the coast clear. I steal my way past the living room — the digital clock on the mantelpiece reads 2:05 am — as hurriedly as I can, before I can change my mind. Suddenly my feet trip over some wire, and I go crash! on the floor, my suitcase as well — with a loud thump!

My parents rush out to the living room before I can pick myself up. "Son, what's going on?

I don't dare to meet their eyes.

The dream dissolves before I see their faces, a neat resolution. I lie on my bed panting and sweating. Before I realize that my right hand is crushed beneath my pillow, under the weight of my head.


I have told my parents I want to go on a trip. Thirty-five days in Europe: backpacking solo will do me good, give me some fresh air I so badly need. "Anyway, didn't you tell our relatives that I was going to take this year to do some travelling?"

So my parents agreed after some slight reservation. "I'll be fine, don't worry," I told them. "It'll be good for me to discover my independence."

Now Lily is sitting in the car, taking an interest in the hastily penned itinerary I planned for myself. She'd said she wanted to send me off. She'd come to my house to help me with last-minute packing.

Mom and Dad are sitting in front, Dad is driving. They are on rapid-fire mode, each taking their turn to dispense some commonsensical advice. I'm not really taking in what they say. I look at their hair. So many strands of grey hair already. What have I done? Mom and Dad who love me so. But I have only greyed their hair with worry. And will grey it much more.

Then Lily shakes me out of my trance by remarking "It's not very elaborate, is it?" referring to the itinerary. I tell her, "What I do doesn't really matter. I just want to be alone." Then, lowering her eyes, she says quickly, "It's not good to be alone all the time." I pretend not to hear.

And then, looking out of the window, catching one last look at the trees lining the roads, a whizzing blur of green and brown from the car, I grip the passport I hold in my hand, the back of which rests on my pouch, zipped up, containing all the money I have withdrawn from my bank account.


"Take care of yourself!"

"Remember to call often!"

"Write to us!"

Hugging each one, Lily first, then Mom and Dad together, all cheerful as can be, even if holding back  tears. From a distance, the stranger with nothing to do, casually observing from his seat, might think: that's one happy family.

Then I leave them, show my passport and air ticket to the officer manning the departure hall, and pass through the checkpoint. As if in a dream, I turn back to see all of them, small and distant now, waving urgently, and just perceptibly I smile, manage a wave, something for them to remember.

And then, I disappear.

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