Her name is Von. I see her sometimes when she comes into my store, Von and her tall, pretty boyfriend on Saturday afternoons. Von wears her hair in long tresses, brown under the noon light. Her eyes are so lined they are black, deep pools framed by long, fake eyelashes. Too much blusher stains her cheeks, and her smile is thin and quirky and so adorable. It’s hard to miss a girl like her, so feminine in her navy tulip dress.
“So listen, listen,” Von says to me, “I’ve got this idea. Shit. It’s the gayest thing ever, but listen.” Her voice is clipped, as if she’s got so much to say that her words trip over each other. “We can fool them, you and me. It’ll be hilarious. Think about it.”
I don’t think I really understand what she’s saying, but it doesn’t matter because I’m nodding anyway. Von has a tattoo on her wrist that says 사유, and I ask her what it means. She laughs, the tone husky in the hollow of the shop the both of us are standing in; me behind the counter, her in front of it, her Kate Spade wallet pressed in her hand.
“Sa Yu. Freedom, freedom,” she says. “Pretty, don’t you think?” she waves her hand and the tattoo disappears from my sight. “So how about this. Are you going to do it?”
I agree a little absent-mindedly as I ring up her purchase. Baggy overalls, ripped at the knees. It won’t go with her lovely brown curls. But she smiles and takes the paper bag.
Von returns to my store at lunchtime the following week with her hair chopped off. I stare at her, taking in her short tresses (butchered and unstyled and just like mine). She grins at me before pulling out a green sundress and vintage belt. “Wear this,” she says. Her Ralph Lauren bag is missing, replaced by a worn canvas tote. From it she reveals make-up of all sorts – MAC blushers in all shades of pink, Chanel horsehair kabuki brushes and Bobbi Brown eyeliner pencils, Shu Uemura lashes and Elizabeth Arden lipsticks. “Hold still,” she says.
Her stare is startling without the eyeliner; have I never seen her eyes before today? She watches me, a smile that almost, almost conceals her seriousness. Then she tilts my chin up with gentle fingers and I close my eyes.
“Von,” she whispers in my ear.
I crane my neck slightly as I look into the mirror. God, I can barely see my own eyes under the eyeliner, black like night and lashes so long they are almost sultry on their own. Von’s arms circle my shoulders, her breaths warm against my blushed cheek. “What’s your name?” she murmurs. Our eyes meet in the mirror – hers clear and open, mine dark and void. “Ling,” I manage to say.
“No, that’s my name,” she says, and I see her tattoo briefly before her hand slips into mine. Sa Yu. Freedom, freedom.
“God, I love you in short hair.” He is so beautiful, I can barely breathe. His fingers run through the strands of my hair, chopped up and black and immaculate. His lips curl slightly when I startle at his touch. “What’s wrong, Von?” he whispers. “I already told you I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” I say, and my heart stills when he leans in to kiss me, lips chapped against mine. Von meets my eyes from the counter, with hair messy over her eyes and overalls loose on her petite frame.
We fooled him, I want to tell her. Is the game over?
The door swings open, and my lady boss walks in with her arms laden with boxes. “Ling,” she calls, “a hand here, please?”
I open my mouth to respond, but Von is already by her side, taking the boxes from her as they enter the stockroom. Her boyfriend slips his tongue against mine, and I catch the flutter of his eyelashes. He tastes of cigarette smoke and heaven.
The last of protests die in my throat.
She is laughing far too hard, her gasps echoing in the back alley.
“Listen, the deal’s done,” I say. “We fooled him, we fooled my boss. Let’s get back to where we were.”
“Sure,” she says. “Sure. Tomorrow, how about that. I’d like to hang out as you for a little bit. You got your ID?”
She gives me hers. Evonne Lee, says the pink card. She scrutinizes mine under the dim lamp. “Ling Ee,” she says. “You live in Jurong West? That’s epic.”
“You live in Tanah Merah.” My voice is flat, but my heart skips a little. Von giggles and smacks my arm.
“Don’t let it get to you. Daniel lives in Bukit Timah. His place is gorgeous.” She winks. “Don’t keep him waiting, hmm?”
I look at her, lips parted in question. She leans in, lips brushing against mine as her fingers graze my cheek. “Tomorrow,” she whispers. “I promise.”
I stay with Daniel that night, in between silk and scattered moonlight. He whispers Von, Von. I fall in love somewhere past the kiss and (his) climax. My heart is empty except for the name in my ear – Von, he calls me, over and over.
I return to the store the next afternoon. The lady boss looks up and I expect her to tell me to get to work immediately, but she smiles her welcome. I pretend to look at the clothes I already know so well (prices, item numbers, measurements) before I look to her.
“Is Ling here?”
The lady boss raised an eyebrow, and the flash of displeasure I’m so familiar with flickers in her expression. “That girl,” she says in annoyance. “She quit last night. Is she your friend?”
I stare at her, my hand paused in midair with a wooden hanger clenched within my fingers. “Did she – did she leave a message?” my voice feels strangled in my throat.
“No.” the lady boss looks puzzled now. “Did you reserve something with her?”
She looks right at me, but there is nothing in her eyes – no recognition, no jolt of familiarity. I’m Ling, I want to scream. Don’t you see?
But I smile, thin and quirky and adorable. Then I turn on my heel and leave.
My father answers the door. “Hello,” he says, half in surprise. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Yes,” I say slowly. Von is sitting on the couch, laughing with my little sister about something on TV. I stare at them through the metal gates. My father follows my gaze and beckons to them.
“Min, Ling, you know this girl?”
Von glances at me, and the moment is suspended – it feels like everything else is blocked out in that one instant. The blare of the television. My father’s questioning expression. My sister’s laughter. Then Von smiles, wide and true and nothing like the smile I knew from her. No longer thin, quirky, adorable.
“No idea who she is,” she says.
“You must have gotten the wrong house,” my father says.
Von looks away, her giggles twining with my sister’s shouts. I continue to stare at the door after it closes in my face, wooden brown and cool under my hands.
Von’s mother is seated in the living room, all plush velvet and rosewood cornices. “Remember ballet class,” she says as she looks through the newspaper with hardly a glance in my direction. “Piano at six. We have a function right after, we’ll send someone to pick you up. Tomorrow we have brunch with the Tans, and then a golf session at the country club. Evonne, are you listening?”
I only nod when she turns her eyes on me, lips pursed in disapproval. “And for god’s sakes,” she snaps harshly, “change out of that frock. You look a joke.”
I make my way up the stairs. Evonne, says the wooden plaque on one of the doors. I turn the knob, my feet sinking into soft carpeting. The room smells almost musty of faded perfume, like nobody’s been home for a long time. I sit down on the perfectly made bed, my gaze resting onto the trophies on the desk with her – my – name on it.
Piano, ballet, basketball, poetry, theatre, dance.
I choke back a sound; it feels something like laughter and a sob. It disappears into the blanket of silence within the four walls.
“I’ve got a good idea, listen to me, will you?”
My ears perk up at the sound of her voice, the same as it ever was a year ago. Beside me Daniel is laughing with his friends, his arm slung over my shoulder. Ling is talking to a sweet young thing by the corner of the café, her hands clasped in her lap as she listens to Ling ramble.
“What’s that on your wrist?” the girl asks, somewhat meekly.
“Oh, this?” Ling holds up her wrist. “Sa Yu. It means freedom, freedom.” She leans forward, hair falling into her wide eyes. “Hey, are you listening to me? We could fool them all, it’d be hilarious. What do you say?”
Daniel nudges me, and I turn back to him to see his dark, pretty eyes hooded by the light over our table. “Something wrong, Von?” he asks.
In the distance I hear Ling’s voice, giggly and breathless and excited. I pick up my mug and smile at him as the bitter taste of beer lingers on my tongue.
“What do you think of me getting a tattoo?”
“That’d be cool, babe.” But he’s not listening to me anymore as one of the boys launch into a homophobic sex joke. Daniel never listens.
I watch Ling leave, her hand a tight grip on her naïve, daisy-frocked ticket. They step out of the café into the blue of evening, and it’s the last they’ll ever be who they are, I know. Freedom, freedom, I hear her saying still. Her words echo over and over in the back of my head.
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