Here’s the thing about that old saying about there only being two kinds of people in the world. Everyone has their own favorite way of sorting humanity, and it invariably tells you more about them than it does about the people they are trying to judge.
So when I tell you that Michael used to say that the only two kinds of people in the world are those who like to sit in the aisle seat of an airplane and those who like to sit in the middle, I’m not just trying to tell you that he was the kind of guy who would regularly forget that window seats exist. I’m also trying to tell you that he was the kind of guy who could hold a magnifying glass to the world – for him little things were always portentous of some larger whole.
And above all, I’m trying to tell you that Michael was, without a doubt, the kind of person who would prefer the aisle seat. Till this day it amuses me to think of all the uncomfortable plane rides Michael must have had when he was allocated a middle seat by accident or lack of choice. I can imagine him sitting there, too painfully polite to disturb his fellow passengers, and yet the need to growing more urgent by the hour as his bladder slowly filled, until the plane ride itself would become a struggle of Herculean proportions against the unyielding call of nature. Michael told me that this was why he tried his best not to accept any of the complimentary drinks they served on planes.
All this, I guess, is my way of explaining why I knew when Michael asked me if I wanted to get coffee with him next Saturday – his treat – that there was probably more to it than met the eye.
I met Michael in a coffee shop near one of our old secondary school haunts. It only took a few minutes of conversation for me to realize that he had not changed at all. I had not seen him since we had both finished our studies, and it was strangely comforting to know that some things, at least, would always be the same.
“Well, it was really nice talking about our old days in school,” I said, putting down my half-finished cup of coffee. “But that can’t be the only reason you called me up after so long.”
Michael grimaced. “Am I really that obvious?”
“Yeah you are,” I said, chuckling. “But its okay. What’s up?”
“I broke up with Emily.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, not really meaning it. I remembered Emily, a girl two years our junior who Michael had been dating ever since his first year in uni. I had bumped into her a few times around town ever since Michael introduced us, but I had never really gotten to know her all that well. My girlfriend, Wen, did know her well and had told me that she was the reason Michael had stopped spending time with his old friends after graduating from university. I had found that plausible. Dating someone clingy and demanding sounded like exactly the sort of thing that Michael would do.
“It’s okay,” he said. “She was bad for me anyway. Can you believe that she used to pick out my underwear for me?”
I winced. Sadly, I could.
“Well, yeah,” he continued. “Anyway, it’s over and I don’t know, I’m looking to get back into the dating scene. But I was with Emily for so long that I’ve kind of forgotten how to, and well, I was hoping you could help me.”
“Sure,” I grinned. “I’ll have you know that I make a terrific wingman. I just have to square it with Wen first – she’d skin me alive if she thought I was playing the field behind her back…”
“Are you kidding me?” I punched him in the arm. “Seriously? You wanted me to be your wingman just because I’m attached?”
Michael grinned sheepishly, rubbing his arm where I had hit him.
“It wasn’t the only reason! But yeah, okay, I figured, you know, if I brought you with me at least you wouldn’t be any competition.”
As much as Michael’s confession had hurt my pride, I had to admit that his logic made sense. There was no chance I would have more than a friendly interest in any of the girls we met.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll let it slide this once, but only because I feel sorry for you. So what’s the plan? Which bar are we going to hit up?”
“Well,” he said. “I didn’t exactly plan on going to a bar per se…”
“Okay, then where?”
“There’s an SDU dating event next Friday, and I thought we might both sign up.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
The SDU – or Social Development Unit, to give its full name – was a government body created in the 1980s as a desperate attempt to fix Singapore’s falling birth rates. Its official mission was to “promote marriages and nurture a culture where singles view marriage as one of their top life goals”, but in reality it was little more than a state-sponsored dating agency.
These days, almost no one ever used it. Their events had a reputation for being plastic, sterile, and incredibly awkward. Members received a monthly newsletter which published their own profiles, and interested parties could contact the agency directly to arrange a date. My uncle had been a member for a while, and told me that these first dates used to take place in the agency building itself. The guy and girl would be locked in a bare, fluorescent room for an hour, with nothing but a table, two chairs and a list of government-approved conversation gambits to break the ice. Unsurprisingly, few people managed to progress to a second date. Among my generation of Singaporeans, going to the SDU was effectively an admission that one had exhausted every other alternative. We even had our own interpretation of the acronym: Single, Desperate, Ugly.
I explained as much to Michael, but he would not be moved.
“Yeah, I know all that,” he said. “But they went through a rebranding and all in the last few years, and I heard that they’re much better now.”
“Besides, I don’t think I’m the sort of guy who is, uh, how do I put it… uhm, the aggressive one when courting?”
I sighed. There was no point reasoning with Michael – his mind had clearly been made up.
“Fine, fine,” I said. “But I reserve the right to leave early.”
“Great!” He beamed. Rummaging around in his bag, he handed me a set of forms. “Fill these up by Wednesday and email them to the organizers – they’re meant to help match you with your ideal date.”
I looked at the forms. Stacked together, they were an inch thick.
I let out a long, despairing sigh.
Friday rolled round all too soon for my liking. Part of me had secretly hoped that Wen would veto the venture and give me a good reason to back out, but she had found the whole situation absolutely hilarious and insisted that I accompany Michael to the event. And so at 9pm I found myself standing awkwardly outside a bar in Clarke Quay, waiting for Michael to turn up and trying my best to pretend that I had nothing to do with the big sign outside the front door that proclaimed that the venue was playing host to an SDU-sponsored event.
“Hey, sorry I’m late!”
I turned around to see Michael running up to me. He was dressed in jeans and sleek black shirt, an outfit that might have passed off as smart had it not been rumpled from hard running. I checked my watch – the event had started ten minutes ago. For Michael, that was probably as good as being on time.
“Thanks for waiting! You really shouldn’t have – I appreciate it!”
“Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t about to go in there myself.”
“Well,” he said, ignoring my obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Shall we?” With Michael leading the way, we walked into the bar.
We were greeted at the entrance by a thick-set man with long, luxuriantly gelled hair. He introduced himself as Matthew, the chief organizer of the event, and handed us numbered nametags that we were to put on. He explained that the numbers were there in case participants wanted to arrange a second date but had forgotten the name of the person they wanted to get in touch with. This piece of information did not exactly fill me with confidence.
Michael, on the other hand, was elated.
“I got number 8,” he whispered, as Matthew conducted us into the private room where the event was to take place. “That’s a lucky sign, right?”
We were the only two people Matthew had been waiting on, so the event got underway as soon as he had introduced us to the gathered singles. There were 20 people at the event, evenly divided between men and women, and the night was to proceed according to two phases.
First, there was to be an ice-breaker cum speed-dating section where participants would be matched with a different person every 5 minutes and get to know one another by answering the question their partner had submitted prior to the event. After everyone had got the chance to get to know each other, participants would break out into a group social and be free to mingle around, chat and play the board games that Matthew and his staff had provided.
I tried my best to recall what question I had filled in on the form. I had not thought that other participants would see it, and I prayed that I had not written down something embarrassing in a fit of pique. As it turned out, I had submitted something trite about one’s favorite breed of dog, and I spent the next hour learning more about dogs than I had in my previous twenty-three years of life.
Michael was sitting next to me, and I tried to eavesdrop as much as I could without seeming too uninterested in what my partner had to say. To my dismay, I realized that as his icebreaker he had chosen to ask girls if they preferred the “middle or aisle seat”. This invariably provoked confusion in his partner, whereupon Michael would launch into a deeply involved discussion on the logistics of bowel movements on planes. Naturally, this did not exactly endear him to the girls he was talking to. Most cut the conversation short before the full five minutes had elapsed, inventing some flimsy excuse to back away and move on to the next guy. But Michael remained blissfully oblivious throughout, seeming to draw no correlation between his choice of conversation and the looks of faint horror that slowly began to spread over his partners’ faces.
Soon, the speed-dating segment of the event was over and Matthew’s staff began to set up for the group social, rearranging the tables to allow for a more communal seating arrangement and setting up the bar. Taking advantage of the lull in conversation that this reorganization caused, Michael caught my eye and motioned towards the toilet with a jerk of his head.
Taking his cue, I made my way to the toilet, and Michael followed close behind. I checked to make sure that we were alone, then closed the door behind us.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing much, I guess. I just wanted to ask you how I’m doing – do you think I’m doing well?”
I hesitated. I really did not think that Michael had given anyone a good first impression, but I did not want to blow his confidence either.
“Eh, I couldn’t really tell,” I lied. “Too noisy to hear what anyone else was saying.”
“Oh.” Michael looked slightly crestfallen. “Well, I think I’m doing okay but I could have used some confirmation. The people here are pretty nice, aren’t they?”
I nodded. I hadn’t paid all that much attention to what my partners had been saying, but no one had said or asked me anything that had set off any red flags. Despite my initial misgivings about the event, I had to admit that the people I’d met seemed relatively normal and well-adjusted, if a little on the serious side for the average 20-something crowd.
“Met any girls you like?”
“Yeah, there was one.” Michael smiled sheepishly. “She seemed sweet and was kinda cute, and best of all, she liked to sit in the middle seat too.”
“Great!” I said, privately hoping that this girl had taken Michael’s choice of conversation better than most of her peers. “What’s her name?”
“Well, I can’t really remember actually – I think it was something like Cheryl? I do remember that she was number thirteen.”
He paused. “Huh, number thirteen. Do you think that that’s a problem?”
I shook my head.
“Michael, you need to stop reading so much into all these little things.”
I clapped him on the back.
“C’mon, let’s see if we can’t get you a date with this girl of yours.”
We returned to find the group social in full swing. Small groups gathered around each of the game tables while others helped themselves to drinks at the bar. Michael motioned in the general direction of a girl standing alone at one side of the bar.
“There,” he said. “That’s her.”
I eyed her appraisingly. She was dressed elegantly in a plain white sundress and matching sandals, and wore her long black hair tied back in a simple ponytail. She was a bit too short for my liking, but I could see why Michael liked her – she was just his type.
I nodded approvingly.
“What are you waiting for? Go up and talk to her!”
Michael shook his head.
“C’mon man, help me out – I can’t go up to her by myself.”
“Why? You literally just talked to her.”
“I… I don’t know man, that was different! C’mon dude, you gotta help me out.”
“Alright,” I said. “Here’s the plan. I’ll go up to her and introduce myself, and then you come by maybe a minute or two later like you’re just coming by the bar to get a drink. Then I’ll bring you into the conversation and slip away as soon as I get a chance.”
“Sounds good. Thanks so much man.”
I gave my shirt a quick pat down to smooth out any creases, gave Michael a wink, and walked over to the girl with what I hoped was a confident stride.
“You don’t really seem like you’re enjoying yourself.”
The girl seemed slightly startled by my approach, but quickly recovered her composure. The name “Sherry” was scrawled in small, almost unnoticeable, letters next to the big “13” on her nametag.
“No, no, I am – but this… well this isn’t really my scene, I guess.”
“Why not? A pretty girl like you must get a lot of attention from the guys.”
She frowned, and took a closer look at my nametag.
“Look, Nick,” she said. “You seem like a nice enough guy, but truth be told Matthew over there is actually my boyfriend. I’m just doing him a favor and making up the numbers because they couldn’t find ten girls.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, it’s just, I’m dating some too – I’m basically here for the same reason you are.”
“Ah. Moral support for a friend?”
I glanced over my shoulder. Michael was tapping away on his phone, trying his best to look busy and disinterested. Sherry followed my gaze.
“Oh, the guy who can’t go to the toilet on planes?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. I apologize on his behalf.”
“There’s no need to – I thought it was kinda cute actually.”
“Mhmm. Sure it was a little weird, but at least it was less trite than most of the other ‘icebreakers’ people came up with… like oh I don’t know, favorite breed of dog, for instance?”
I winced. I hadn’t thought that she remembered our conversation.
“Okay, in my defense I wasn’t exactly paying attention when I filled out that form.”
“Or when you were talking to me.”
“Okay, okay, you got me beat here, lady.” I held up my hands in mock surrender. “But do me a favor and let my friend down nicely, will you? He’s been having a rough time lately and could use the break.”
She smiled sympathetically.
“Yeah, don’t worry, I get it.”
I had not spoken a moment too soon, for out of the corner of my eye I saw Michael pocket his phone and begin to head in our direction. I waved him over, hoping that Sherry would remain true to her word.
As Michael walked up to us, Sherry offered him a friendly hand.
“Hello, Michael,” she said. “I really enjoyed our conversation just now.”
“Ah… thanks, uh, me too!” Michael replied, somewhat flustered but clearly pleased at the compliment.
“And if I was single I would totally call you up for a date,” Sherry continued.
“Really? Oh uh… ah… what was that again? You aren’t single?”
“Unfortunately, I’m not.” Sherry explained her situation.
“Oh, well, uh that’s too bad then. Thanks for letting me know.” Michael looked crestfallen, but he was clearly trying to make the best of it. “And there’s no need to be sorry – it was nice to meet someone else who likes to sit in the middle too.”
“Same here. And you know what, it was so nice to meet you that I’ll even share something with you that I really shouldn’t.” Sherry leaned in conspiratorially.
“You see that girl over there?” She pointed at a girl in a blue dress sitting at one of the game tables.
“Yeah,” Michael said. “Her name’s Debra, right?”
“Mm. So here’s the thing – Debra and I are actually colleagues at work, and at our Christmas party last year she got kind of drunk and let slip that guys who know their poetry really turn her on. I don’t suppose you’re a fan of poems, are you?”
Michael looked at me and grinned. He had gone through a phase in secondary school where he attempted to learn all of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart – I had spent many a lunch-time nap sleeping with my headphones on in an attempt to drown out the sound of his voice as he paced round the classroom reciting verses in iambic pentameter. Thankfully, he had soon given up on this attempt, but I was pretty sure that he still remembered those sonnets he had managed to memorize.
“Yeah, I know a few.”
A guy sitting at Debra’s game table got up and lurched unsteadily towards the toilet. I gave Michael a nudge.
“Look, a space just opened up – let’s go grab it before it’s taken.”
“Actually, I think I should maybe try this one on my own.”
I was pleasantly surprised by his sudden burst of confidence.
“Yeah, after all, I gotta learn how to do this on my own sometime.”
Sherry patted him fondly on the back.
“I’m sure you’ll be great. Be sure to compliment her on her hair too – she just changed her hairstyle and likes to know it looks good.”
Michael flashed her a thumbs-up, and made his way over to the game table. We watched him sit down, introduce himself to everyone, move a few pieces, and strike up a conversation with Debra.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I said. “Your little chat with him certainly did the trick. How did you even know that Michael liked poetry anyway?”
Sherry let a slow, satisfied smile spread across her face.
“I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Your friend here thinks that where someone likes to sit on planes is important enough to determine who he dates – the only other people I know who think like that are Literature grads and aspiring writers. I’m just surprised he didn’t drop a line or two of verse when we talked the first time.”
I nodded. When Sherry put it that way, it did seem fairly obvious.
“But still,” I said. “Those are some pretty impressive people skills. Where’d you learn how to read people like that?”
“I sell used cars,” she said. “If I couldn’t read people I’d be out of a job.”
“I bet you’re pretty good at your job,” I said.
“I’m alright,” she said modestly. “But lately business hasn’t been that good. Car prices are down so more people are buying new.”
“Well,” I said. “Maybe I can help you with that. My girlfriend’s looking for a car right now, and her budget’s pretty tight – she’d prefer getting one secondhand.”
“Really? That’s great! Look, let me give you my name-card…” Sherry rummaged around in her bag, but came up empty.
“Ah, crap. I must’ve left them at home.”
Extracting a pen from her bag, she picked up a napkin from the bar and scribbled a few digits on it .
“Here’s my number. Tell your girlfriend to call me.”
“Sure thing.” I put the napkin into my pocket. “I’ll text her your number as soon as I get back.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around. Matthew was standing behind me, arms akimbo, and he did not look happy.
Suddenly I realized how the previous exchange between Sherry and I must have looked to someone not privy to our conversation.
“Look,” I began. “This is not what it looks like-“
Matthew hit me in the face.
My head rang.
There was a deep, throbbing pain between my eyes. I raised my hand to touch it and my nose got in its way.
It hurt like hell.
Beside me, Michael was laughing.
I turned my head halfway, then stopped. It hurt too.
“What’s so funny?” My speech slurred.
“That’s the third time you’ve done that,” Michael said.
“Tried to touch your face, then realized that your nose was still there.”
I tried to focus. It was hard. Everything around us was so noisy, and someone must have turned off the air-conditioning – it was hot and humid, like we were… outside?
I jerked upright.
“We’re not in the bar anymore,” I said.
Michael laughed again.
“No, we’re not,” he said. “Look around you.”
We were sitting on a set of concrete steps. My gaze followed their path, taking in each step at a time as they led walkers down to the banks of the Singapore River. I looked down even further.
“Jesus – there’s blood on my shirt!” I poked at the red stains experimentally and a few crimson flakes fell off.
“You really don’t remember what happened?” Michael asked.
“No.” I shook my head. “All I remember is getting decked.”
Everything after the punch was a haze. My memories were full of confused images – noise, screams, movement, and someone shouting my name.
My name. Who had shouted that? I frowned.
“Wait- I remember someone calling me. Was that you?”
“I did more than just call you.”
“What do you mean?”
He gestured at his own face, and for the first time I noticed that he was sporting a black eye.
“I jumped Matthew after I realized what happened,” he said. “But as it turns out I’m pretty useless in a fight. If the bouncers hadn’t broken up the fight and kicked us out I’d be in worse shape than you right now.” Despite his self-effacing words, Michael’s voice was tinged with pride.
“Wait, you jumped Matthew?”
“By jumped, you mean you punched him?”
“You… punched someone?” I shook my head again. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Yeah,” Michael said. “I didn’t think I had it in me either.”
“But hey,” he continued. “Turns out Debra likes guys who stick up for their friends even more than guys who can quote poems. She came looking for us after we got thrown out of the bar and passed me her number – we’re going on a date next week.”
Despite the pain, I smiled.
“That’s my boy,” I said. “I told you I was a good wingman.”
“Yeah.” Michael smiled back. “But next time try to get me a date without getting the both of us beat up.”
In front of us, the river churned with life and noise. Junk-boats motored from pier to pier, their cargo of tourists leaving a constellation of camera-flashes in their wake. On the opposite bank, bars hawked their wares in glowing neon lights, their customers spilling out into the already crowded street. Sound and movement were everywhere – the very air itself seemed to thrum with the spirit of a city celebrating the end of another long week.
But here, between us, there was silence, a moment of stillness that said the things no words could express. In that moment, the bond between us felt palpable, our years of friendship condensed into something solid that you could almost reach out and touch.
“Hey Michael,” I said, presently. “You never did tell me why Emily and you broke up.”
“It was popcorn,” he said.
“You know how I really like popcorn sweet, right? Well, Emily really liked popcorn salty. So we used to compromise and get a bag that was mixed. Then one day we were sitting in the theater watching some shitty romcom when I reach into the bag and realize that she’s bought a bag that’s only salty.”
“And then, I guess I suddenly I asked myself what the hell I was doing dating a girl who wasn’t even willing to compromise on popcorn.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You were okay with her telling you what underwear to wear but popcorn was the deal-breaker?”
Michael looked embarrassed.
“It wasn’t exactly a rational decision,” he said. “But I don’t really care about what type of underwear I wear. I care about popcorn. And she knew that I cared. You know what I mean?”
I nodded. Strangely enough, I did.
“Popcorn man,” Michael said, shaking his head. “Fucking popcorn.”
We laughed and leant back on our palms, watching the light from the bars slowly ripple out over the river’s lapping waves.