By Lydia Kwa
Nine years after my graduation, an e-mail arrived from someone connected to a past life.
I looked at the e-mail signature. Serene Teoh. I furrowed my brows. Took me a while, but I finally remembered — scrawny thing who ate a lot but never seemed to gain weight. Spice Queen was her nickname, because she ladled on the chilli oil with everything she ate. I hadn't thought of that church for a long time — been ages since I decided to turn away from anything monotheistic.
Serene had done an undergraduate thesis with the professor with the fruity-sounding last name — Dr Melon, a pale, red-haired guy who'd been given tons of money to do research on Indigenous peoples in northern Ontario. He wasn't very fruity, though. Straight as an arrow.
At the time, I was only one of two Asians in the graduate psychology programme; and Serene was also unusual because she was one of a handful of Asian undergraduates completing their honours in psychology. A memory of us eating mapo tofu at the only Chinese restaurant in Kingston came into my mind. Strange how memory works.
That sure was a different lifetime. Unsure what it would be like to meet up with Serene, I still said yes, and suggested a place to meet. Three weeks went by quickly. The weather warmed up. The grey, brooding winter sky was finally gone.
On that Tuesday morning, I arrived 10 minutes early and stood outside the entrance to New Town Bakery. I glanced at the cherry blossoms cascading down to the pavement, tossed about by the breeze. I next turned my attention to the customers going into the bakery. Mostly Asian uncles and aunties going inside.
I was still daydreaming waiting outside New Town, when I heard someone call out my name. I looked in the direction of the voice. Serene was running up the street, waving at me and visibly gasping. She was dressed in an oversized camel-coloured rain jacket, her burgundy harem pants showing below the jacket.
I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes past the time we'd agreed on. I forced a smile. I think I succeeded in not looking annoyed because Serene didn't react. She pointed at the sign, "The Best Buns in Town" and giggled.
I led the way to the last booth on the right, happy that it was available because it was my favourite spot. I liked to sit facing the entrance so I could watch people at the front counter ordering their apple tarts, red bean rice balls or custard tarts. I felt comforted by the sight of the old guy with the shock of white hair and fish-eyed glasses folding take-out boxes at the side counter. I was set. If I found Serene boring, I could at least look past her and be entertained.
Serene flung off her jacket to reveal a bulky, acrylic, cream-coloured sweater. She sighed loudly while rubbing her hands together, then wrapped her fingers around the Duraflex glass of hot tea. "Wah, not used to the cold. Been so long since I was in Canada."
After the waitress took our orders and left, Serene glanced around the cafe for a while, not looking at me. Maybe Serene was shy. Or socially anxious. Three minutes of silence wasn't too bad when we were enveloped by ambient noise.
The waitress soon returned with our food. Mine was a custard tart, whereas Serene got a bowl of pork-and-preserved-egg congee. As if the arrival of food had broken a trance, she turned her attention on me, and began to speak.
"Wow, you look the same! After all these years. A-ma-a-a-zing. What's your beauty secret?"
I shrugged and didn't answer. What could I say? I had no beauty secret.
"So — how long have you lived in Vancouver?" She started in on her bowl of congee. I caught sight of some dried oyster bits mixed in with the pieces of preserved egg.
"Nine years so far."
"Right after I left Queen's in 1988, I went home, and got the job at the library. Hey, your Chinatown is tiny."
"True. And it may shrink even further."
"Oh. That's sad." But she didn't look sad. She slurped her congee loudly.
"You here for an academic conference?" I lifted the custard tart up to my mouth and took a hefty bite. I savoured the warm sweet taste in my mouth before I swallowed.
"No. A Baptist one, actually."
"Wow, came all the way to Canada for it."
"Yes, very big gathering. Got to play my part. God has been good to me, gave me a great job."
I imagined God dressed in an immaculately ironed waiter's uniform, coming toward Serene with a silver serving tray. When he lifted the domed lid off, a yummy yolk-yellow card with the word JOB printed in black was the singular pièce de résistance. The card was the exact shade of yellow as my custard tart.
Serene sat back against the sunset-orange leatherette seat accompanied by a loud farting soundscape, presumably created by the movement of her butt as she shifted position. "Remember Stanley Poon? He'll be coming for the conference too."
A visual memory of Stanley arrived, unbidden. Tall, gaunt, loose-limbed. From Hong Kong. His jagged, shoulder-length hair, the messy bangs over his bespectacled eyes. He possessed a certain eccentric charm. Maybe he had had a past life as a willow tree. The most intellectual Bible study group leader in the church's Youth Fellowship, he quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen alongside Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza. Who would have guessed Stanley had been in the Engineering graduate programme?
"Oh yes, Stanley. With the lisp."
"In fact…it was he who told me about you having published two books. And they're fiction. Not even psychology, huh. Is that right?"
"And what's more…" She paused and took a loud sip of tea. "…he, he said, your first novel has all lesbian characters."
"Nope. The mother in the novel isn't."
"Huh." Serene stared. Self-consciously, I wiped imaginary pastry flakes from the side of my mouth and took a slow sip of tea.
Then she took to her congee. Presumably she was figuring out what to say next. I looked away and stared at the tower of take-out boxes Old Fish Eyes had assembled. I counted 15. Very impressive.
I played a game in my head. The kind where you imagine the other person as an animal. Did Serene have a panda face? Nope. Too thin to be a panda, not cuddly enough. Not a giraffe either. Serene's eyes were gigantic in proportion to the rest of her face. I finally settled on lemur. That seemed to fit. Lemurs live on the island of Madagascar. I imagined Serene high up in a rainforest jungle, swinging from tree to tree, her eyes flashing bright in the night.
Serene finally put her spoon down and looked at me. "I needed to see you. Dying to confirm something. We figured I'd be the best person to do it. I'm still in touch with our church group in Kingston. Some of them are coming here for the conference."
"How did you guess?"
"You told me just now."
I recovered from my slouch and sat up straight. It was starting to get interesting. "So — the church group sent you to meet up with me, huh? Kind of like a reconnaissance."
Another soundscape of faux farts materialised as Serene shifted forward until she rested her elbows on the table. New Town needed new upholstery. Or maybe the upholstery was too new, hence the sounds.
"I mean — you were a pretty upstanding Christian back in those good old days."
"Hmm, was I?"
"So what happened?"
"What do you mean what happened?"
"I heard from Stanley that you've become a lesbian — is that true? He read it on Wikipedia."
She was sent to recce me. Not a location but me. Sent to investigate my sexual orientation. Would they be sending a delegation next to bring me back into the Fold? A commotion happening at the counter distracted me from my mounting uneasiness. Our waitress scolded Old Fish Eyes because he had piled two more boxes on top of the 15, causing the tower to collapse, propelling more than half of the boxes onto the dirty floor.
I looked back at Serene and exclaimed, "Why yes, I am indeed a lesbian!" Heat rose up to my neck and along the back of both my ears.
She was breathing hard. She picked up her porcelain spoon and stared down at the congee. A tear appeared out of her right eye. She quickly dabbed at it with the paper napkin.
"Jessica, does that mean you're no longer going to church?"
"Yeah, that's right. I realised that since God wasn't a lesbian, no point going anymore."
Serene covered her mouth with both hands.
I sounded tough, but inside, I was feeling shaky. I felt sweat line my forehead. "Ever met other lesbians? I'm sure you think not. But I bet you have. At least three, five, 10, 50…maybe more, at school in Kingston. What about in Singapore, huh? Your church there. They could even be decent people."
Serene was struggling to say something, "Uh, uh, well…I don't know, not too sure about that."
"Well then, there's nothing else to talk about."
"That's not true. We could talk about DSM for instance — why they dropped homosexuality as a diagnosis."
"That's ancient history, darling. Do you think I'm some kind of exhibit in a museum for you to stare at?"
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Gayness, homosexuality — these are all Western corruptions anyway."
"You obviously aren't caught up on Chinese cultural history! Like — all those references to same-sex love between men, and between women in classical literature. Or maybe you knew? But you've somehow conveniently forgotten?"
Serene's lemur eyes shrank and a glazed look materialised. "I…uh…uh…"
I narrowed my eyes and squinted at her, "You say you work at the library, huh? You a librarian? Don't you read? But at least, you can't have missed out that furor over the gay penguin book, right? That was a few years ago: And Tango Makes Three."
Serene's lower lip trembled. Her shoulders did a slight tremor as well.
I took a sharp breath in. No, I said to myself, don't say anymore. Don't take it all out on this person. She wasn't going to understand; she had been fixated on upholding certain values for forever, so what was she going to do? Suddenly dismantle years of her reliance on a view of life and God? It was too much to ask.
"You've changed. You're not the nice, polite person I knew back then." Serene was done with her bowl of congee. She wiped her mouth carefully with the napkin.
"You're right — I'm not as nice. And I'm glad about it." I heaved a big sigh of relief. Serene's eyes momentarily glazed over a second time. How ironic that we had both studied psychology, and here we were, unable to bridge that rift between us.
The waitress and Old Fish Eyes by now had picked up all the boxes and stacked them up in three shorter towers. I got up and put on my coat, took out a ten-dollar bill and a toonie from my purse and slapped the money down on the arborite surface before weighing it down with my half-emptied glass of tea.
We walked out of New Town Bakery together.
"Where are you heading? Could I get a ride back to my hotel, please?" Serene asked.
"I'm walking down to Georgia Street to buy some groceries, and then I'm taking the bus. Going east. Sorry, I don't drive."
"I'm heading back that way." She pointed in the other direction.
"Well, you fulfilled your mission. Found what you were looking for."
Serene raised a limp wrist to half-heartedly wave goodbye as she headed west on Pender Street. She didn't fly but she sure walked briskly away.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 1 Jan 2022