I have this idea that as we go through life, we tie knots in ourselves. Knots tied loosely to allow for easy release, or tied tightly to handle their intended load. Sometimes, we tie these knots in others; and we undo those which hold us down.
For the longest time, I believed that as life pushes and pulls, we naturally come to understand our heartstrings. I was wrong.
On my first birthday, Mum laid five items on the floor: a storybook, an abacus, a pair of scissors, a plate of cake and an ang pao; to see which one I crawled towards and picked up. I chose the scissors. For 24 years, she held the suspicion I was going to grow up to be a gay fashion designer. In the end, I decided to sell houses.
She raised me by herself in a two-room flat off Serangoon. No grandparents, no paternal family. Every Chinese New Year, I would receive two ang paos: one from Aunt Doris and one from Mum, each with $50. Every year until 24.
Then the hellos started. She would walk into my room every few hours, asking me if I’ve eaten, telling me she didn’t know I was home. Then, calls from strangers or bus captains. Your mother doesn’t know how to go home, they would say. I remembered hearing the hollow snap in my head. Without warning. Like a slipping knot, releasing its load.
I first learnt about knots when I entered the army. The mission was role-play, but the three-storey outpost was real. We had to climb up through a small hole in the middle, right under its bridge. Sergeant said the ladders were destroyed in war. There were a few bakau poles in the bushes nearby but the wood was soaked-rotten, covered with tiny mushrooms. We couldn’t tie a ladder from those.
Our commanders had revised us on our knots in the middle of the night before. They walked through our basha tents, flashing torchlights and asking which of us wanted to go to officer cadet school. I slept through the whole thing, but my buddy Han taught me in the morning. I woke to see him standing outside the tent, in standard body order with toggle rope tied over his thighs like a playboy garter belt — practicing.
Our section decided to thread a rope through a metal loop on the side and hoist the lightest guy (me) — I would then monkey my way over to the hole. I had tied my own harness (it was me being pulley-ed three stories into the air after all) and finished it with a bowline knot. Halfway to the top, the bowline gave way and I flipped up-side down. I dangled in mid-air for five seconds before falling face-first into the mud. No broken bones, but my nose never looked the same. I also never slept during knots again.
My first real camera was a Sony Rx100. A compact, barely the size of my palm, perfect for point-and-shoot. I brought it everywhere, collecting tactile memories of friends and places to revisit when lonely. Sometimes at work, when I’m scouting a new property, I find myself scrolling through the places we’ve travelled, where we saw snow the first time, when we braved deserts and climbed great walls. I’ll buy you a giant house, I told her. There’s no rush, she said.
One day, I laid the same five items on the bed and watched her pick them up. She didn’t choose any, but instead pointed at my camera. I bought another Rx100 and taught her how to use it every time I saw her — she could never remember, no matter how many knots I tried to tie.
The second time I used the bowline was when I met Vanessa. Chinese, five feet tall, she was rocking a nurse’s uniform with Victoria Secret curves and she looked like the kind of girl you don’t take home to see your mum. She asked when I was visiting next, and I asked when could she have dinner.
I brought her back to our semi-detached terrace in Tanah Merah where we drank wine and smoked off the balcony. We listened to Nujabes, made out, and watched planes descending into Changi Airport. Then, she took out her kindle and handed me a page from Fifty Shades.
Read it to me, she said.
I tied her hands to the bed and placed a sleeping mask over her eyes, while whispering to her ears all the things I wanted to do. She smiled and whispered back, “tighter.”
The next day, Vanessa calls me at work to say that Mum had spoken to her. She wanted a pair of scissors, she says. She wanted to take a picture. Can you believe it?
When I hang up, I feel my insides churning, my strings wriggling themselves Gordian. Whether tightening or loosening, I will never know.
Maximilian Wong Wei Han is an independent writer from Singapore.
Gordian is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @drmakete