XV | What's Real

After a long time,
‘Let me show you something.’

Rowan leads me
into the back alley
behind the shophouse.

There’s a giant blue dustbin by the backdoor
of every shop in the row.

Every shophouse alley in Singapore looks like this.

I don’t think there’s anything to see.


The alley is narrow,
paved with uneven concrete.

Like it used to be a road.

For some reason,
there’s a hole in the gravel

right outside

the backdoor to the chicken rice shop.

A young sapling is growing
out of the hard infertile rock.

There’s only one street lamp
(and it’s a few shops away)
so i can’t really tell what plant it is.

‘It’s a rowan tree,’ Rowan says.

This rowan tree isn’t big
like the one behind our school—

it’s about my height.

But unlike the one at school,
this one has red berries.


I touch the smooth, small

They shy away from my finger.
Like they’re alive.

So tiny.


Rowan trees don’t grow in Singapore.


In the dark,
Rowan’s face seems to have a soft expression.

There’s a yellow light
in her eyes
from the faraway street lamp.

‘Even stepping towards this portal
‘leads you to the real world.’

I sigh.

‘Listen, Rowan.
‘I don’t know what weird things
‘you’re learning in church

‘but the real world and the “real” world you’re talking about
‘are the same thing.’

She looks surprised.

There’s a small smile on her lips.

She nods.
‘You’re right.’

Now I’m baffled.

‘There’s only one world.
‘Walking up to a tree
‘doesn’t bring you to another world.’

‘The real world is real.’

We’re not talking about the same thing anymore,
are we?

I try to hold back my frustration.
‘Yeah. That’s why it’s called the “real world”.’


There are no stars in the sky.

It’s Singapore after all.

I’m tired of being frustrated.

Rowan sits down right beside the little tree,
hands cupping her cheeks.

It’s too dark
to see anything.

Her voice is sad.
‘But your real world and my real world
‘are two different worlds, aren’t they?’

In this ulu part of Singapore

there is no traffic nearby,
          no crickets either.

It’s just endless silence,

threading through




of the night.


The tiny rowan leaves whisper—

it’s voice high-pitched,
more child-like
than the tree in school.

‘Everything that exists in my real world,
‘also exists in your real world.

‘And everything that exists in your real world,
‘also exists in mine.’

Her hand is white.

A contrast to the gravel.

She traces the cracks in the concrete.
‘But there’s so much missing in your real world.’


A chill



my spine.

There’s a simple way to explain that,
I want to tell her.

It’s called “perspective”.

But the words
don’t leave my throat.




‘There’s no flying donkeys in my real world,’
is the only thing
i say

in the end.

How much time have I spent staring at Rowan?

My legs are numb

from standing
in the same position
for so long.

I can vaguely hear
Rowan’s father

clanking around
inside the chicken rice shop.


Rowan stands up,

wipes gravel bits from her uniform
and turns to go back inside.

‘We had dinner.’

For a long time I’m not sure why she says that.

Then I remember
that I asked her out to dinner.

I shake my head.

‘This doesn’t count.
‘It’s your father’s chicken rice shop.’

She removes her hair tie.

Through her cascading hair
the tips of her ears

turn angry red.

‘It’s fine.’

‘No. Doesn’t count.’

she begins.

I think she’s going to reject me again.

I’ve actually
never been
by a girl twice

I curl my toes in my shoes.

But that
has nothing to do with this.

‘You said there’s stuff missing in my world.’

She stares at me.

‘Prove it.

‘What’s missing?’


Rowan’s expressionless eyes
are examining mine.

She’s looking for sincerity.

I can’t move.
There’s concrete in my shoes.

‘If it’s just flying donkeys, then forget it.’

I turn and walk away.


I stop,
smiling inside.

I turn to her.

‘It’s more than that.’

She fidgets with her fingers.
Eyes not meeting mine.

‘And uh…
‘You’re walking the wrong way.
‘Bus stop is there.’


At the ulu bus stop,
I think about what just happened.

I don’t really know.

The bus is taking so long.

Just now,
when I didn’t want to go home,
it came immediately.

I lean against

a cold grey pillar

and try again.


There are flying donkeys in my world,
I suppose.

If you sub flying for ‘smart’
and use a synonym for donkey.




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