I have not yet learned to smile without my gums. In a year I will become an expert at twisting my mouth into a demure crescent, lowering my upper lip to hide the pink flesh holding shelves of teeth in place, lifting my bottom lip instead of stretching it sideways. I will learn to keep my eyes open when I smile, crinkling only the corners so as not to look terrifying or fake. I will begin tilting my chin down to give the illusion of cheekbones.
But in this picture, my smile is still a flurry of teeth and gum, a joyful elasticated gape. My eyes have disappeared into pouches of baby fat, my cheeks are glistening peaches in the afternoon sun. I lean my head into your neck, my hair wet and stringy, perhaps deliciously cold against your bare shoulder. Your skin is walnut brown, shiny from afternoons spent on canoes and wakeboards and walking me home. The sun beats down on our prickly necks.
We are on a beach. The beach is manmade, like most things in this country, and where we are standing now was once nothing but sea. Still, it is a fine beach, with soft white sand that scalds the tender skin between our toes and a shallow bay in which we splash water at each other’s faces like the insufferable teenagers we are. When the salt stings my eyes I stop and remind you that I am wearing contact lenses, and you fold me into your cold hard arms, putting your lips over my ear as if that has anything to do with eye infections at all.
In the picture, you are smiling too. The same gummy smile and squinty eyes and your head resting gently against mine. In a year you would ask me how I could have done it. How I could have stroked the palm of your hand with my thumb just outside the frame of the picture being taken, as I planned a life without you in a place with no artificial beaches or year-round sun. In a year, you would look at a picture of me online, trace the edges of my new smile, your fingertips brushing my disciplined lips, my wide unblinking eyes. Your nails lightly scratching the surface of my newly bleached teeth.
We lie in your bed. A sheen of perspiration slicks our limbs.
“My mom’s called the aircon man. He’s coming tomorrow,” you say.
The fan beats weakly overhead and you kiss my damp forehead. It is hot and not in a good way, so I shift myself out of reach. But you lunge and pull me close. I laugh and wriggle, you won’t let me go, and as we struggle we roll slowly off the low bed.
“Ow,” I say, though you have taken the brunt of the fall. The marble floor is ice against my shins and I hike my skirt up to press the whole length of my bare legs against it.
“Mmmm.” You place your warm hands on the backs of my thighs. “What have we here?”
“It’s too hot,” I whine, rolling over and swatting your hands away.
“A nymph?” you say, undeterred. We are both still in our school uniforms. Your hands find my belly, begin unbuttoning my shirt. “Bathing all by herself in a crystal clear river?”
I feel your hard-on against my thigh, the heat of your breath on my cheek. The marble tiles chill the backs of my calves. I imagine the relief of being naked against the smooth floor.
I slide my hands under your shirt, feeling the silky knot of your body under the wash-worn cotton. “Oh Zeus,” I say. “I’m just a lowly nymph. Please let me go, Zeus.”
I never told you, but when I was thirteen, a girl in my class with the long white face like an elongated moon asked us all when we thought we’d lose our virginity. I’d seen the movies and read the books. At that point in our lives, my best friend and I were shameless consumers of Lesley Pearce and other age-inappropriate chick lit. But my best friend was from a good middle class Christian family, and had shame about her body instilled in her from a young age. I did not come from such a family.
So I answered with ‘eighteen,’ what I thought was a conservative estimate, based on what I had read up till then. The girl who asked the question howled in disbelief. She exhausted herself that day telling everyone who would listen that ‘Celeste Tan said she would lose her virginity at eighteen,’ and I realized for the first time that the values espoused in American chick lit did not apply in Singapore. For days I had people coming up to me asking if it was true, if I planned to have pre-marital sex at eighteen. Even as the shame twisted my insides I knew better than to get angry or backtrack or try to treat it as a joke. Instead I met the hungry mocking gazes of my classmates straight on, said yes, I did, and I didn’t see what the big deal was at all.
It happens a year earlier than I predict. I am seventeen, when we meet in the cheesiest of ways. We have just arrived at junior college, fresh from rigorous single-sex schools, awash in hormones and ambition. I have joined three extracurricular clubs—netball, choir and photography—securing leadership positions that will look impressive on my college applications.
As creative director of the photography club, I am in charge of marketing our first exhibition, which I have creatively titled ‘Exposure.’ I therefore need a naked torso for the poster, I decide, the more defined the abs, the better. Years later, I will write essays about subverting the male gaze, but right now all I really want is to photograph a hot guy.
I don’t remember who suggests you, but I do remember the way they put it. They say it’s the kind of thing you would do. I don’t think then about what they mean, but I remember it years later. You are the kind of person who would do the kind of thing you do.
We meet at your house. It is a large house in a nice neighborhood, quietly, confidently prosperous. A single floor with high ceilings, no second or third floors tacked on to maximize space. Along with the large house you have a large family, parents and three brothers and a maid, and there are enough rooms for you all.
We go into the garden, where the light is better. The garden is the size of my grandmother’s flat, where I live with my mother and brother now that my father is gone. I do not think about this. Instead I tell you to take your shirt off and stand against the white exterior wall of the house. In my hands I hold one of the photography club’s DSLRs, a heavy beast of a camera with an aggressively phallic lens. My shoulder aches where the camera strap digs in, but when I lift it to my face and look through the viewfinder, all I see is you.
After the day I take your picture, the flirtation begins. It is as predictable and mundane as all other flirtations, but we are seventeen, and do not know that yet. There are no nude selfies, for I am ever concerned about my prospects of winning a college scholarship, but there are suggestive phone calls and lewd texts that we believe are daring and unique. Two weeks later I go back to your house, this time wearing matching underwear under my t-shirt and shorts. When we sit on your bed and you lean into me, my skin grows hot but I pull away. I tell you that I would only kiss a boy if he were my boyfriend and you respond without skipping a beat.
When you ask me to be your girlfriend, your voice is husky and I think it is the emotion of the moment, but many years later I will think of myself thinking this and laugh. I say okay and kiss you before you can kiss me.
No one says slut but they say other things, things like someone heard a rumor that we had a threesome with your ex-girlfriend, or we had sex outdoors in a playground, or we are in an open relationship. No one says slut but they ask me loaded questions about birth control and whether I want to go to church with them this weekend.
The problem, I am told, is that you already had a girlfriend when you hooked up with me. Never mind that I did not know, never mind that you broke up with her the day after the day I went to your house. I know that is only one of the problems. The other problem is that we are having sex at all.
No one says slut until someone does, and once the word is pried loose from their mouths it won’t go back in, it follows me everywhere I go.
It is unfair, my friends say when I find strings of strawberry-flavored condoms in my locker one day, stapled to the now-familiar word scrawled across crumpled notepad paper. The word is written in blue ballpoint, a pen that the perpetrator likely uses for homework assignments, to write in the notepad that resides in his or her backpack. A backpack that is sitting somewhere in this school. Seeing the word written like that makes something curdle and harden in the base of my stomach.
I swallow the feeling, narrow my eyes and give a practiced smile. My friends laugh in relief. I tell them I don’t care and it lifts the burden from their shoulders. Soon the incident is forgotten and we move onto other topics. They laugh as we throw the condoms away, make jokes about the poor cleaning lady who will find them. I laugh too. They do not see me slip the crumpled paper into my bag. They do not see me at home that night, smoothing it out under the yellow light of my desk lamp as my baby brother snores in the bed next to mine.
I don’t tell you about what is happening at school. You have recently transferred to a different school and haven’t heard the stories. Or you pretend you don’t. Either way, I don’t bring it up.
I go to your house most afternoons now. Your mother likes me, because I bring my homework. I make you study too. You are smart but unfocused, aimless and undisciplined in the way that intelligent teenage boys often are.
As a joke, I tell you I will break up with you if you fail your first year of junior college. But to my surprise, and your mother’s, you take me seriously. You begin studying with me in the afternoons. We argue about trigonometry and Shakespeare. I am usually right, or perhaps you let me win. We spread our textbooks across the veined emerald marble that is your dining table. Your younger brothers creep past us stealthily, shushed by your mother if she happens to be home.
When we are not working, we are in your bed. The music we have sex to depends on your mood, alternating between John Mayer, Nirvana and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Perhaps it is on a day when we are listening to the latter that you bring up your thing for the classics. You quote Plato and Herodotus, even though none of it is on the syllabus. You confess you sometimes jerk off while imagining yourself as a Greek god.
“Which one?” I ask, ever practical.
“There isn’t one,” you bluster, avoiding my eyes. “Forget it. I was only joking.”
I let the silence reign as I draw you into my arms, running my fingernails down your back the way I know you enjoy. I put my face in your neck but you have no smell. It is the one thing about you that is unexpected, for you have the greasy skin and oily hair of an athlete in a tropical country. But it is unmistakable. You always smell of nothing; no sweat, no sweetness, no human salt. Vampiric.
The air-conditioning has been fixed. It hums quietly, filling your room with cold recycled air as the afternoon festers outside.
“Zeus,” you say at last.
“Mm. Lord Zeus.” I let my fingers trail down your spine, hook my nails under the elastic band of your shorts. “I am your most humble slave.”
You don’t respond, but I feel your breathing quicken. I think about the hundreds, thousands of times this fantasy has played out in your head, alone, in solitude, perhaps on your childhood bed that we are lying on now. I think about the box of tissues on the window ledge beside us and I am overcome with tenderness. I feel something inside me crack, a hairline fracture that threatens to widen into a chasm. I wonder if this is love.
It is as if I can already see the full rise and fall of our relationship, as if I can see how this will end. A sad thought, so I buck my hips under you and whisper nymph-like nothings in your ear. It doesn’t take long for you to respond.
Your mother has bought me a pair of expensive earrings. Earrings that cost as much as what my entire family spends on groceries in a year.
It is the latest in a string of gifts that begin when you tell her about my ‘family background.’
“You don’t mind, do you?” you say to me. An afterthought.
I don’t. Seeing myself through your mother’s eyes, I feel my shape coming into focus, my edges sharpening in the fog. I never thought my life was different than yours or any of those around me, but now I see what the houses and cars and parents who help with homework add up to.
Your mother gives me other things: a string of freshwater pearls, a travel makeup set, a bracelet. To me they are shockingly lavish gifts. They gleam with the implication of a different life, a life where clothes are not secondhand, where buying textbooks does not mean cutting back on eating meat, where the quality of a life is unrelated to the charity of relatives.
I keep these gifts in a bookshelf behind novels, hidden away from my own mother, who does not know about you. She thinks I spend my afternoons at after-school clubs. The gifts stay in their boxes and from time to time I take them out, brushing the dust from their plastic housings and savoring their weight in my hands.
I study harder. I want to make your mother proud.
You joke that my accepting the expensive earrings means we have to get married. I laugh, but remember the way your lip curled when I asked you once how you would feel if I went to college in a different country, and the joke becomes not very funny after that.
Then you say seriously that our sex is so good you wish other people could see. You say that you wish other people knew what they were missing out on, that maybe we should one day run a school for sex. A sex academy.
You like doing it in front of the bathroom mirror. I see you watching yourself, I see you thinking about the other people.
I think about other people too, but not in the same way. It is a little more than a year into our relationship, and I have met someone. He is more muscular and less intelligent than you, but I still find myself responding to his texts, looking forward to his calls.
When I meet him in his car one night and let him kiss me even though I find his conversation dull, I think of the condoms in my locker. And the note, which I have smoothed out and folded and carefully saved. Slut. I should have saved the condoms too, that would have shown the classmate with the long white face. Celeste said she would lose her virginity at eighteen. As I slip my hand under the boring attractive boy’s shirt, I think about how I have surpassed expectations yet again.
On my eighteenth birthday, we go to the beach. When we get there my closest friends jump out from behind a tree, where they are badly hidden. There is a picnic: brownies, fried chicken wings, sweet Taiwanese sausages. You have gotten them to bring my favorite food. There is also a cake, giving off an oily sheen as its chocolate icing liquefies in the blazing sun.
In a year I will get a scholarship to go to a famous school in a country that I can only get to by being on a plane for twenty-two hours.
The first flight will be agonizing. A vague ache will develop in my lower back, and no matter how I twist and turn in the narrow gray seat, pull my knees up to my chest, curl into a ball on my side, it will remain. Even when the plane finally lands at its destination, a city where none of my clothes make sense and no one believes English is my first language, even when I stand up and step off the plane and into the airport and onto the subway, even then, the ache will still be there. I will be struck by the worry that it will never go away, that I will spend the rest of my life with pain lodged in my spine.
In a year, I will leave you in the cruelest of ways. Though I still wear the earrings that your mother gave me, I will morph into a new me, an American me, one that has nothing to do with the girl on the beach eating a chocolate cake baked by you. I will not call. I will not respond to emails. I will ignore the pictures that you send me in the post, of us knee-deep in the sea at my eighteenth birthday, hair matted with salt and eyes lit with love. I will think of you rarely, briefly, while some other boy bites my earlobe or strokes my thigh.