We became the talking point of many when we got together.
It was inevitable; one month later, most of our friends knew about our relationship. Michael always sent me home after school. I knew many of our friends expected us to break up after one month. The Ah-Beng-with-bad-results together with the go-home-after-school-studious-girl? One of our friends even said that Michael made me pregnant due to a rape.
When I was beside him, I felt like the bravest girl in the world as I knew that no matter what came upon me, I would be protected. That was why I wished that he had been at home with me when I had the argument with Mummy.
My parents saw the change in me after a few months. Initially, Mummy asked why my skirts had become shorter. I told her I had grown taller. When she measured my height, I lied again, telling her that the skirts might have shrunk. I only admitted that I had altered the skirts when she told Yanni to buy two new skirts for me. When the late chit-chatting on the phone was discovered by Mummy, she wanted a talk. Daddy and Yanni were instructed to go out to buy something, and come back only when Mummy called Daddy. In the room alone with Mummy, I felt like calling Michael. I wanted him to sit beside me and talk for me.
“Who’s this boy?” Mummy asked. She pursed her lips for seconds.
“I just know his name.” Mummy adjusted her old-fashioned glasses. When she did not smile, she became that austere superior in her office. “His name is Michael.”
I bobbed my head.
“He’s from the Normal (Technical) stream, Valerie.”
I nodded again.
“You’re from the Express stream. You’re going to be a degree holder; he’s not. Ten years from now, you may be supporting him. How can he take care of you?”
“Mummy, he’ll work hard.”
“He will. But look at him. His academic performance is a reflection of his attitude towards life. I know he may be handsome—”
“Mummy, he’ll work hard.”
Mummy shook her head. “It’s at this age that girls’ mind will be controlled by emotions, and guys’ mind by lust. I—”
“Mummy, will you accept him if he gets into the Normal (Academic) stream next year?”
It is quite difficult for a student in the Normal (Technical) stream to be transferred to the Normal (Academic) stream, unless the student really excels in his or her studies. There was a long pause. I pictured myself talking to Michael about his studies. I was sure he would study hard—for me.
“Valerie, you should know you and he are miles apart. You and he are in different worlds—”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m trying to tell you, it won’t work. You can find someone better.”
“Daddy has rich parents too. He also has a high educational qualification. You two are now so loving.”
Mummy sighed. “Our case is different. It’s like twenty years ago. And the guy supporting the girl is normal.”
“We’re reaching year 2000 soon.” I crossed my fingers. “And Michael will work hard. To support me. Trust me. We’ll be like you and Daddy. A woman who does not even have a PSLE cert with a master’s degree holder.”
“Don’t compare apples with oranges.”
“Have you even seen him? Have you even talked to him? What rights do you have to think we won’t work out?” I whispered.
Mummy slapped the bed. The soft recoil, instead of the sound, stunned me. “Because I walked the path before. You going out with that bad boy—”
“Michael is not a bad boy.”
“This is Singapore. If he’s in Normal (Technical)—”
“—that doesn’t mean he is bad.”
A pause. Mummy rose to her feet and stood beside the door, as if motioning me to leave the room.
“You’re too young to understand this. You’re my daughter and I know you best. I know the harsh reality best as well. If you continue to go out with that rubbish, I’ll no longer give you your allowance.” She paused to take a breath. “I may even disown you.”
It must have been the word “rubbish” that spurred me to say the next sentence: “Then disown me.”
As I dashed to my room, I heard a distant sentence from her.
“What has happened to my daughter?”
And then, loud sobbing behind closed doors; from both the mother and the daughter.
* * *
It was easy to start a relationship with Michael, but it was not easy to maintain it.
We ignored what others said about us. Michael told me he would try his best to study; but with his part-time work, he could not promise me results. I told him that results were everything; he said that achievements need not be reflected in report books.
“Look at Bill Gates and Michael Dell. And maybe Michael Cheng soon. They’re all Bo Tak Chek. The studious types work in the government for others; the hardworking and rich types let others work for them. All I need is to develop a skill and work towards it.” In Singapore, Bo Tak Chek means low-educated people.
“What skills do you have?”
“I’m a professional sleeper,” Michael said and I knew immediately that he was trying to use jokes to change the topic again. “I sleep better and faster than others. Last night, I broke my record by falling asleep within five seconds upon lying—”
“I’m serious!” It was recess time, and we were in the canteen. Students turned to stare at us. They must have been thinking, Finally, this couple is quarrelling.
“Noodles, we’re still young. Soon, I’ll find a skill. You know why?”
I shook my head. The thought of Chinese New Year in a few months’ time made me wince. I did not know whether I should let Michael visit my relatives or not. In Singapore, Chinese New Year is like Christmas: We visit our relatives that we have not seen for a year, and “show off” what we have achieved throughout the year. If one has nothing to flaunt, he or she will either go overseas to avoid the gathering or let the relatives mock him or her. The whole day would usually be spent by the relatives nattering away for hours.
“Because ever since I held your hand, I’ve been trying my very best to ensure that I will support and protect you. I don’t want to just be your boyfriend. I want to be someone you can depend on; someone you turn to when you have problems. Just give me time. We’re still young.”
“My mother is not happy about our relationship,” I said matter-of-factly.
“I’m not dating your mother.”
I eyed the laksa in front of me.
“Trust me, Noodles.” Michael placed a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll work very, very hard. Not for me, but for us.”
I wiped off a tear and turned to Michael with a smile. “Next year, Chinese New Year, I want you to visit my parents and relatives.”
Michael laughed. “Okay! But I definitely won’t let you visit my parents yet!”
* * *
But Michael failed. He nearly failed his examinations.
Instead of reflecting on his results, he worked more hours. I went to find him at the McDonald’s that he worked in. Michael told me that it was his smoking break and wanted our conversation to be short. We went to the back of the shopping centre, facing the library. That was near the spot where the stalker Jia Yao had approached me.
“What the hell were you thinking?” I thrust my report book at him. “I’ve got six A’s. What do you have?”
Michael pointed to the shopping centre. “I’ve a job.”
“That’s not a job; that’s bullshit!”
“Noodles, look into the restaurant. Look at how many fathers raise their kids by flipping burgers and how many mothers feed their kids by asking for orders. You better fucking respect them. I’m working for our future. You get A’s, I get C’s—cold, hard cash.”
“We’re in Singapore!” I pointed at the shopping centre, then at the library, then at the road—and then practically at anything that I could find. “Here, paper qualification counts! Without it, you’ll flip burgers forever!”
“As long as I can support and protect you while flipping burgers, I’ll do just that, even if I have to flip twenty hours a day, seven days a week.”
“You just don’t get it,” I said.
“You just don’t get it.”
“No, you don’t get it!” I screamed and turned away.
“You don’t get it because you’ve never run out of food before. Have your parents ever asked for rental before? I’ve been paying fucking rental since fourteen years old. Noodles, you have an umbrella above your head. I don’t. That’s why you don’t know what the rain can do to you.”
When I wheeled round, Michael was gone. I stared at my shoelaces for several minutes and wondered who had taught Michael how to tie his shoelaces.