BY HSIEN CHONG TAN
When I was a little girl in New York, I loved to ride the subway. Back then, I didn’t care about the grime or the roaches. And the weirdoes on board didn’t scare me. I liked how a bunch of buskers would just pop on the train, play a song, and pop off at the next stop. I was too young to analyze this, to say that dirt was culture, to weigh comfort against surprise. Sometimes I would watch a passenger force open the doors between carriages and squeeze his way out. I imagined him disappearing, like magic. I know now that he was only squeezing his way through a second set of doors and into the carriage beyond, walking further and further away.
I loved it when we passed another train in the tunnel. Our carriage would shudder from the nearness of its neighbor. I stared out the window at the figures appearing beside me for that fleeting moment and hoped that one of them would turn and look at me, looking at him.
I wasn’t born with these trains, though I did a little growing up with them. My father left Singapore for New York in 1981 to do a sociology PhD at Columbia. I was only two when my Mom and I joined him a year later. It took him five more years to get his doctorate and an assistant professorship back at the National University of Singapore.
I was seven, and all I remember about this second move was me standing on a platform and bawling, saying again and again that I didn’t want to go home. I’m not even sure which “home” it was that I didn’t want to go back to, since Singapore would have meant nothing to me then. It was probably our apartment in Morningside Heights, and I was just sad that the afternoon outing was over. But every time I think about leaving America, I’m back in that train station, crying those tears. It’s the last thing I remember about New York.
My Dad is an academic, but he was also the first person in his family to go to university, and for a long time, he and Mom persisted in their working-class habits. We lived in an apartment in Buona Vista so that he’d have a short commute, and though he eventually bought a car, my mom refused to learn to drive it. I walked with her to the market on weekend mornings, and she’d let me carry a bag of leafy greens home, afraid that I would bruise the fruit. School days, I’d be one of the early ones who arrived on the bus, waiting in the canteen for all the other girls to be dropped off by their parents just before the bell rang. I wonder if I knew what a close call I’d had back then – I was one year behind the others, and I talked funny, like one of the kids on television. But the fact of having actually lived overseas lent me a sort of cachet, let me hover at the edges of social cliques so it wasn’t so obvious how alone I was.
Secondary school was easier. My American accent had faded, but enough remained that the boys found it cute. I remember these years as a succession of sweaty afternoons spent making out in stairwells. On MRT rides home I always walked to the carriage at the front of the train. Most of the time only the doors on the right opened, so we’d press against each other in the opposite doorway, flaunting our blue and white uniforms and scandalizing all the office workers. When our favorite nook was occupied, we’d lean against the partition between the passenger and driver compartments instead. Once, we leaned too hard — one moment there was a tongue in my mouth, the next I was tumbling, apologizing, trying to put the metal panel back in its place. It’s easy to forget that there’s a driver – the tracks are fixed, the stations don’t change, the train knows where to go. I can’t have seen more than a silhouette of him, though I have the impression of a head half-turned, an arm half-raised. If he’d said anything, I must not have heard. But I think of him all the time now, a figure at that console of switches and blinking lights, piloting his spaceship through the dark.
Please stand behind the yellow line. Please stand clear of the closing doors. The same warning repeated in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil. Beyond the line I see gravel, tracks, the picture of a little man and a lightning bolt. The man is in pain. He is bent backwards with it. Stand behind the yellow line.
I went to university in a time before camera phones, so the photographic record of my three years in London is haphazard in its inclusions and omissions. Here I am, climbing one of the Trafalgar Square lions, here I am, in the LSE student union, giving a thumbs-up while chugging a pint. Here I am, building a two-foot-tall snowman in the street the first day it snowed more than an inch. The date stamps tell me that I used up a ten rolls of film in the first month, and another eight over the next three years. Here I am in my cap and gown.
Of the long unphotographed night of my London life, this is what I remember: giant tents in a field, hollow Zone 5 buildings which may have once been warehouses or factories. I remember the swinging glowsticks, the music, the little white pills, my chin jerking sideways to a pulse that was only in my head but went through the whole room. And I remember coming down under the sharp fluorescents, ragged queen in a field of empty plastic water bottles. We held our heads and each other. And then the train ride home, summer quiet and gigantic in the windows. Purple hair and furry pink leg warmers, caravan of beasts and angels.
I remember keeping one last lightstick, spent from the neon arcs it had spun through the night. Cradling it in the miniature dark of my cupped hands, I looked for any residual glow. I held it like a firefly. I held it like a prayer.
Here I am in my cap and gown. I graduated in June 2004. My parents came to my convocation. They came to take me home. I’d found a job with a bank in London. I didn’t want to go. I just didn’t want to go.
I remember those conversations, the ones in my dorm, in department store changing rooms, in restaurants where my Dad invariably ordered the Cumberland sausage. One day we’d been out shopping and were on the train back to their hotel when Mom said: “Buy that coat for what, back in Singapore still need meh?”
As casual as that – everything already decided.
We rolled into the station and I followed Mom and Dad through the sliding doors. Other commuters flowed around me, people I would never see again. The PA system sounded a final warning. And I turned around and shoved my way back into the carriage. It took my parents awhile to miss me. Through the window, I watched them do a slow pirouette on the platform, weighed down by their shopping bags and the shock of their disbelief.
Later, I told them that as the train picked up speed, I felt myself pulling away from them, faster and faster, at a hundred miles an hour, their figures lost in the distance. Except that it wasn’t them disappearing, but me.
My father said: “Girl, I knew you would come back.”
There’s this question I have, about what happened that day. It isn’t about why I went back, but how I got on that train in the first place. The Circle Line is a loop. Was I able to leave them because I knew that if I just stayed on board for long enough, I’d end up in the same place?
They weren’t still waiting on the platform, of course. By the time I’d done a complete circuit, my parents were back in their room, packing souvenirs into suitcases. Anyway, it just seems like an important question. How far could I have gotten? Did I ever have a chance?
Singapore is getting a Circle Line too. The bulldozers have been tearing at the earth for months. Bishan station will become an interchange. In a few years, the North-South and Circle lines will meet here. One of the kids I tutor lives in the area, so week by week I’ve been watching that hole in the ground grow.
Despite the construction, the North-South trains still stop here, so Thursday nights after the lesson, I make my way to the platform and stand behind the yellow line. Beyond the line, there’s nothing between me and the gravel, the rails and the sign with the little man.
I’ve been looking at him a lot lately, here and at the other stations – Paya Lebar, Buona Vista, and so on. There’s been some kind of mistake. There is no lightning bolt. Not a single one. I must have it mixed up with some other sign I saw somewhere, on a fence or on a pole. But the man is there. Everything else is real.
I’m still in love with trains, though I now wonder if I will ever go anywhere important on one. I used to think it was the smell, but the subway, the Tube, the MRT – they each have their own stink. Maybe I just like how, on a train, you’re forced to stay still and to look at another person, any person, the woman opposite you, the girl who’s asleep, the boy who won’t give up his seat to the man with white hair.
I’ve taken to exploring the newer routes, like the one that goes to the Expo and Changi Airport, and the North East Line, which stretches from HarbourFront to Punggol. One by one I conquer them with my carriage of fellow travelers.
Between Hougang and Sengkang, the NEL train passes through a ghost town – due to an anticipated lack of passengers, Buangkok station was never opened. But for whatever reason, the lights are always on, if only dimly. In the diminished glow of the fluorescent tubes, we see gray pillars, empty seats.
No bell announces our arrival, no expectant faces press against the sliding doors. No voice recording tells us where we are.
Why are the lights on? Who are they for? Out on that forbidden ground are there figures moving, as transparent as our reflections in the glass?
Tunneling through the dark, perhaps this is all we can hope for: the ghosts of other possibilities, the ghosts of other lives. The ghost of a chance that the doors will one day open – and we will step out into another kind of air.
Hsien Chong Tan was born and grew up in Singapore. He recently graduated with an MFA in creative writing from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He currently lives in Madison, WI, with his wife and two cats.