By Jinny Koh
I have always been a good girl. Just ask my mother and father, they will tell you. I am not like those ah lians, with their shirts tight-tight and their skirts high-high, whole day only think of skipping school to go to the shopping center to eat McDonald's ice-cream or drink Starbucks coffee. No, even though I study in one of Singapore's lousiest secondary schools, I am still a good girl: always the first to hand in my homework, stay back in school for remedial classes, help my teachers carry books to the office. I am not smart but I try my best to do well, to make my mother and father proud. They earn little as hawkers, and selling chicken rice can be tiring. That's why I want to study hard and buy them a big-big house in the future, so that they won't need to wake up so early to go to the market every morning.
Mr Tay knew that about me too. The first time we met, I thought he was very young and hand-sum. All my other teachers were the old-old type, like one foot into the coffin, but there he was, fresh out from the Ministry of Education. He walked into the classroom nervously, the back of his light blue shirt wet with sweat, and his forehead too, which he kept wiping with his handkerchief. Who even uses handkerchiefs nowadays? I thought. He must be very traditional.
The class was very noisy that day. The other students gave him no respect because they saw he was green-green. They threw paper balls in the air, ran around like monkeys, but I stood up. I stood up and told all of them to shut up. I was in my final year and wanted to do well. Mr Tay looked at me gratefully, as if I had just given him a medal, and I felt good inside. I felt good that this hand-sum teacher had noticed me and smiled at me.
After that day, Mr Tay treated me better than others. Every time I sat on the school bench to do my homework, he would walk up and ask if I needed any help. I always said no because I felt paiseh around him. He always looked so good with his short black hair combed back, tanned skin, rectangular glasses, and a bit of hair on his chin. I dared not look at him for too long, scared that my face would turn red.
As the day of my first math test drew near, I became worried about my algebra. All the X and Y problems were giving me a headache. So, I asked Mr Tay to give me extra lessons. This was not the first time I'd asked teachers for help. Last year, Miss Lim helped me with my English. All I wanted was to go to a good polytechnic and study hotel management; work for Sentosa. I didn't want my dream to fail just because I didn't know algebra. Mr Tay told me he would be happy to help.
We met every Thursday after school in one of the empty classrooms. Mr Tay would bring a small stack of worksheets, and we would sit side-by-side and solve algebra together.
"Do you understand this now?" he would ask me, never unkindly. Sometimes, his elbow would touch mine. By accident, of course. Other times, his face would be so near that I could smell the woody scent of his cologne. My heart would then start to beat fast-fast.
"If not," Mr Tay would say, his red pen hovering over the paper. "It's okay. I can explain it to you again." He never made me feel stupid, which was why sometimes, even though I already knew the answer, I would ask him to teach me again. I didn't want our lessons to end too quickly.
My classmates soon found out about Mr Tay's weekly meetings with me.
"How come Mr Tay only help you but not the rest of us?" Peiling asked, nudging me during recess. "Why you so special?" She poked a fish ball with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth. Peiling and I became best friends after sitting next to each other in Secondary Three. Usually, I'd tell her all my secrets. But not this time. I was too embarrassed to admit that I had a crush on our teacher.
"What are you talking about?" I said. "You want, you join us lor!"
"Chey! Why should I do that?" She slurped down her bowl of soup. "Waste my time only."
"Then don't complain." I waved her off as if she was talking nonsense when actually, I really felt special. I was the only student Mr Tay helped. Sometimes, I dreamed of being with him, dreamed of him holding my hand. But then I would look at myself in the mirror, see those big-big glasses and fat nose, and tell myself to stop dreaming. Besides, he was my teacher. There was no chance he would like me.
One day, after one of our extra lessons, Mr Tay offered me a ride home. We had been meeting after school for a month now and this was the first time he'd asked me. My face grew hot as I heard Peiling's voice in my head saying, "Why you so special?" I almost turned him down. But, thinking about how nice it would be to go home in an air-con car instead of being stuck in the stinky and crowded bus, I agreed.
Mr Tay's car was big; a silver BMW. The leather seats were so smooth I bet I could easily slide off them. Did teachers earn that much? I wondered. We drove out of the parking lot and down the street. I saw the same things I did every day except now, from Mr Tay's car, they looked different. The yellow apartments along the road appeared taller and brighter. The rows of rain trees greener. We passed by a dusty construction site which I'd seen countless of times but had never noticed what it was for. That day, I saw the poster of an expensive-looking condominium at the front with the words "COMING SOON" in red.
"So what do you like to do in your free time?" Mr Tay asked, one hand on the wheel. When he changed gears, his fingers grazed my knee for a second and my whole body got goose bumps. Suddenly, I was very aware of my own hands.
"I help my parents at their chicken rice stall," I said, staring at my palms. They looked so big and awkward. I quickly tucked them under my thighs.
Mr Tay asked me more questions: what I liked to eat, what movies I liked to watch, what music I listened to. Then, he asked me for my number.
"For what?" I didn't know why I was trying to be coy.
He grinned. "Well, just in case I cannot make it for our extra lesson, I can call you." We reached the bottom of my flat. He took out his iPhone from his pocket while I pulled out my phone — a lao kok-kok model, so big and boxy, like a walkie-talkie. I felt so paiseh. But Mr Tay didn't laugh. He just took down my number and drove off.
Mr Tay started to SMS me every night. I liked that we were now more than just teacher-student. We were friends. I included many 'hahas' and 'LOLs' in my replies to show that I enjoyed our conversations. A week later, he texted that we didn't need our after-school lessons anymore.
"Your math is already very good," he wrote. I was sad to lose our extra time together. Then his next message came: We don't have to only meet for school work. We can also meet outside and have fun.
When I saw that message, my heart went pi-pa-pi-pa. I was excited that someone like Mr Tay, a smart, hand-sum, grown-up man, wanted to hang out with me. I had only gone out with one other boy, Teck Leong, before. He was so disgusting, always talking with his mouth full. To think he'd even tried to kiss me with bits of leftover rice stuck between his teeth. I ran away fast and never spoke to him again. Looking at Mr. Tay's message, I didn't care that he was my teacher. I didn't care that I was 16 and he was 30. I quickly replied, "Ok! Haha, when? :)"
Mr Tay and I began seeing each other regularly. Sometimes even two days in a row. We usually went to ulu-ulu places, like a run-down cinema or a deserted void deck, so that no one would recognize us. We would hold hands and chitchat. He told me I was pretty, that I had caught his attention when I stood up in class on the first day of school. I asked if we were considered boyfriend-girlfriend, and he said we could be anything I wanted. Then he kissed me for the first time. He was so gentle, his lips so soft. I couldn't believe I was so lucky. I was in love.
In class, we hardly spoke to each other so that no one would suspect anything. Everyone just assumed I was done with the extra lessons after the math test. Even though I badly wanted to take his hand in school, to show off to all the girls that Mr Tay chose to be with me, I couldn't do that. I knew that the principal and my parents would stop us from being together because of our age gap. I knew they would say he was just playing with my feelings. Or that I should concentrate on my studies instead of dating. Or worse, that we shouldn't be together just because he was my teacher. I didn't care about any of those things. They were not us. What did they know? The only thing that mattered was that we loved each other. Besides, all those restrictions only made our relationship seemed more special, more exciting.
The day I turned 17, Mr. Tay took me to a French restaurant. We had been together for three months now and that was the first time he had brought me to somewhere so high-class.
"What if someone sees us?" I asked.
"Don't worry," he said, patting my hand. "Jurong is so far from Pasir Ris. Besides, it is my little princess' birthday today. We must celebrate it in style."
My little princess. My insides quivered like jelly whenever he called me that. I always thought of princesses as beautiful European women living in castles. Or Disney characters like Cinderella and Snow White. Now I was a princess too. I was one of them.
The restaurant was dimly lit, with one or two candles on each table. "So dark, no wonder no one would be able to recognise us," I said, giggling as we walked in. A young waiter showed us to our table at a quiet corner beside the window. He pulled the chair back for me and placed a napkin on my lap. I was all smiles until I opened the menu. A dish of escargot, whatever that was, cost five times more than a plate of chicken rice at my parents' stall. What's more, I didn't know what to order. What's Beef Bourguignon? What's Duck Confit? I looked to the table beside me to see what they were eating but I couldn't tell. In the dark, the food all looked the same. Nua nua, brown and mushy.
I whispered to Mr Tay that I wanted the duck, and watched him speak to the waiter. He pronounced each word so confidently, as if he were singing. I was proud to be with a man who knew how to read such high-class menus.
"You know French?" I asked when the waiter left.
"A little," Mr Tay said, a smile playing at the corner of his lips. He often did that—reveal something about himself, but not all—and I tried not to ask further to "respect his privacy", or at least that was what I learned from magazines.
When our food came, I was relieved to see that I had ordered a crispy duck leg. For a moment, I was worried "Duck Confit" might mean duck's blood or tongue. I took a bite.
"Do you like the food?" Mr. Tay asked. "We can always come here again if you like."
I nodded eagerly. The duck was so crispy and juicy. No wonder people were willing to pay so much for this, I thought, taking another small bite, careful not to dribble any gravy. The table cloth was so clean and white I was afraid to dirty it.
Over dessert, he gave me my birthday present.
"Open it," he said, pushing the box towards me. Wrapped in gold foil with a small silver ribbon at the top, the box looked so pretty that I almost couldn't bear to tear it apart. When I opened the cover, my jaw dropped, as if I were holding an ingot that just dropped from heaven. It was a shiny-shiny iPhone.
"I can't take this," I said, clutching the box. "My parents would ask where I got this from." My mother had started to question whenever I came home late, and I'd to lie that I'd been studying at the library.
Mr Tay told me not to worry, as long as I hid the phone properly.
"You can still use your current phone to talk to your friends." He showed me the new SIM card that he had already inserted into the iPhone. "This is for talking to me only. It will be our special line of communication." Our special line, I thought, and my hands went tingly with love. Then he leaned over and kissed me.
We ended our night at Hotel 81. I didn't expect us to go there. The room was small and simple, but cozy with orangey lighting. Feeling nervous, I sat on the bed and stared at the empty TV screen. I'd never had sex before. Since young, my mother had warned me never to sleep with a man until I was married.
"Or else, no one will want you after that," she had said.
I told Mr Tay my fears.
"But I love you." He pushed up my skirt and stroked my thigh. Mr. Tay had never touched me that way before. We usually only held hands and kiss-kiss. The way he touched me made me excited. Nervous, but excited. My heart went pi-pa-pi-pa.
"You know I will never force you," he murmured, his hand moving to my inner thigh. I shivered. "I just thought since it's your birthday, we should do something special." He squeezed my breasts and lightly sucked my ear lobe.
I looked at Mr Tay, at this man who was so hand-sum, so smart, so generous, and most of all, who loved me, and I gave in.
After my birthday, Hotel 81 became the only place we went to. Even though I was bored sometimes, to be doing the same thing over and over, I knew it was making Mr Tay happy, so I never said anything. We did many things—things I had never even seen on the TV. Mr Tay told me all adults did that, to just trust him, and so I did.
A month before my end-year exams, we started seeing each other less. When we met, he always seemed distracted, often stepping away to make calls. I thought I was being oversensitive. But shortly after, our dates stopped altogether. I SMSed him many times, using that shiny-shiny iPhone he gave me, but he just replied that he was busy, that he would contact me when he was free. I called and called him until my phone battery died, but he would not answer.
He avoided me in school too. I felt so scared and helpless. I realised I knew very little about him. I didn't know where he lived, who his friends were, or where to look for him outside of school. My mother kept asking me why I was pulling such a long face, why I was not eating my dinner, why this, why that. I'd tell her that I was stressed about the exams. Actually, I barely studied. I couldn't sleep. My grades had gone down since Mr Tay and I started dating.
On the day of my English paper, the principal announced that Mr Tay had transferred out of my secondary school. I couldn't believe it. I ran to the office and asked a teacher, "Why, why did he leave?" She said she didn't know, that he simply stated "personal reasons." She hurried off before I could say another word. Everyone was busy preparing for the exam that was starting in a few minutes. I couldn't find another teacher to speak to. I felt giddy and my legs went soft. I wouldn't have made it into the exam hall if Peiling had not dragged me in.
"What's wrong with you?" she said, tugging my hand. She had found me sitting stiff like a block of cement in the canteen. "Why are your hands so cold? Studied for the wrong subject, is it?"
I didn't answer her. When the question paper was passed around, all I could think of was Mr Tay's sudden departure. How could he do this to me? I clenched the hem of my blue skirt into a ball and stared at the questions. But the words were a blur and didn't make any sense. Halfway through, I grabbed my bag and ran out of the hall. I knew everyone was looking at me but I didn't care.
Once outside, I phoned Mr Tay. He didn't pick up. I texted, "Where are you? Please meet me. Please. I love you." I couldn't breathe properly. I felt like I was choking on my own heart. After five minutes, I texted again. "You have to meet me, at least to explain. Please. If not, I will tell everyone about us." I didn't want to threaten him but I had no choice.
A few minutes later, my phone vibrated. "4pm, tmr, at our usual place," he wrote.
No more "my little princess." No more "I love you much-much." I squatted down and vomited on the pavement.
The next day, I arrived at Hotel 81 ten minutes early. I was so anxious that I kept going to the toilet to pee. I knew he was going to break up with me. I thought of ways to save our relationship. Should I beg him? Should I cry and threaten to kill myself? In the end, I took off my clothes and waited for him under the blanket.
I stared numbly at the ceiling, recalling the many hours I had spent in this hotel with Mr Tay. How he always shuddered and gasped before he came. How satisfied I had been not from the sex, but from knowing that I was capable of pleasuring him this way. I was no longer just a school girl but a woman. I was his woman.
Half an hour later, I was still alone. I stared at my iPhone's wallpaper, a photo of us taken on my birthday. We looked so happy. I felt like crying again. I didn't know what I did wrong. Taking a deep breath, I dialed his number. A long pause followed before a machine-operated voice kicked in, telling me that the number was no longer in use.
I stared at my phone in disbelief. I punched the numbers again, my heart beating hard against my chest. The same woman's voice came on, dull and flat. Even though I knew that Mr Tay wouldn't be able to receive my messages anymore, I still sent one over. My hands rattled as I typed: Where are you? I'm here. Please come, please. In another message, I wrote: I swear I'm going to tell everyone about us. I'm going to tell the police you raped me.
I must have called and texted Mr. Tay at least 30 times before hurling my iPhone against the wall. I watched it fall onto the carpeted floor with a thud. Then I cupped my hands over my breasts and cried. I felt so naked suddenly.
I never saw or heard from Mr Tay again. That year, I failed my exams. I hid in my bedroom and buried myself under the blanket for a week. Everyone, including my teachers, thought I'd gone crazy under exam stress. The worst part was to see my mother and father heartbroken at what had become of me.
"Exam fail never mind," my mother said, weeping beside my bed.
I turned away from her, unable to stand seeing her disappointed face.
"Most important is that you be okay. I know you are a good girl… just try again next time."
"Good girl?! What good girl?" I wanted to scream out. "Wait till you know what I have done!" But I couldn't. I didn't want her to know that I'd ignored her advice, that I was now so dirty no man would want me anymore.
In the weeks that followed, the only person who had a clue about what happened was Peiling. She wasn't stupid. She messaged me, "R u okay? What happened? R u like that becos of Mr Tay?"
I deleted her messages without replying.
Even though it has been a year, I still think of Mr Tay. I keep visiting our old hideouts hoping to see him there. Sometimes I cry when I recall our stolen moments in the dark theatre, the way he stroked my hand, the way he made me laugh. Other times, I get very angry; angry that he'd cheated my body, cheated my feelings. Then I scratch myself until my skin turns red, till it bleeds. After that, I think of calling the police. I still have all his messages and photos of us in my iPhone. I have evidence against him. The scandal will surely destroy his career and reputation. His picture will be all over the news, listed as a sex offender. No school will ever hire him again.
But each time I pick up the phone, I cannot bring myself to dial. Deep down, I still love him, and I know I will never be able to betray him.
And I suspect Mr Tay knows that, too.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 4 Oct 2017