Leaving home for the first time at the age of 30

1

The day of departure is a study in normalcy, with subtle variations. My mother potters across the house in her pajamas, but places a cup of coffee in front of me as I type this. It’s the first time she’s made me a hot drink in a long while, not since the milo waiting on the kitchen counter on those school-going mornings. The kitchen is oily from the fish dinner my dad cooked the night before. My brother is asleep, and I’m waiting for our routine faux-grumpiness as we make funny faces at each other in the kitchen. There is the thumping of Class 95fm behind my parents’s bedroom door as my mother whistles, putting on make-up, readying to leave the house. Some sort of grief underpins all this routine.

10.30am on my computer like any old day. This is a pleasant sort of banality, the sweet side of the same comfort that I find a vague but deep threat. It is the sort of threat that tells you this 10.30am could last forever if you didn’t leave.

At 10.30am there is a breeze through the window, music on the computer, my mother reading the paper in the study, my dad fixing his coffee, my body full of knowledge about how to enjoy this without it ever having to stop.

2

I have lived in this home for 18 years. It is creaking and mouldy in parts, and everywhere there are thin layers of dust. It is a cluttered house, a mad invention of my mother’s, decorated and over-decorated to be a Country-style home of elaborate fiction. It is a busy and messy house, like all the quietly-hidden internal lives of the people who stay here. It is not a demonstrative household. Habits sit deep in the walls. Unspoken things, unwritten things, collect on its surfaces. The air is soft and wet with pockets of concealed grief and wrapped-up pleasures. Terse nods and roundabout conversations, shuffling feet, tense shoulders, but also secret understanding. I suppose all my sadness is now part of the mess. Every time I return here in future, I will think about how difficult it was at 30 to leave it behind, to tear myself from a wall into which I’ve been hemmed for many years, and how hard it was to articulate it except in writing.

3

This country wants you to wax lyrical about it as you leave, to note its fragrances, slowly wafting from a wok sputtering with oil. Wants you to apostrophise its orderly way of life, its pockets of bucolic gentility in the midst of startling urban efficiency. The supermarket that sells offerings to the dead next to leafy greens; on the street the rumble of buses whose routes are like the veins that trace your arms; the economy of phrases like “also can” when someone asks you if you want dimsum for lunch on the day you leave for two years.

This country also wants you to spit fiery words in its face as you turn away in indignation. To claim with bravado that it is easy to leave it all behind because this place does such a good job at driving you away. To remind you of its laws and injustices, its cynical state machinery, the way it bends and twists the hopes and desires of good people, good people whose sad conversations you overhear and parody in your plays. This country often intimates that you never really belonged here, or were never wanted here.

Neither is an adequate solution.

4

So back to home, which more than this country is what I am leaving. Which I suppose means some of the propaganda is true, or at least that some of it has worked. Or at least that someone hijacked very simple, innocent things– this is my family, these are my friends– for devious purposes. You are deluged in the days before a big move like this with well-meaning advice on the shifting meanings of home: home is where your purpose is, home is where you heart is, home can be many places. You’re encouraged to think about future friends, new work, culture, development, growth.

Instead, I am haunted by a childish fear: Every morning assembly in primary one at least till primary three, I would worry if my mum got into an accident after dropping me off at school. I would not feel at ease until she picked me up again in the evening.

Last night at dinner, she inexplicably, but I suppose not really inexplicably, started talking about how as a baby I could speak at 9 months old. She would talk to me as she drove about, pointing out “van” and “lorry,” “car” and “bus”.

In the intervening years we have grown a little apart, but I will always be grafted onto the walls of her heart as if by my skin.

5

The thought of leaving on a jetplane, if I close my eyes, is the memory of standing at a tall, shaky bridge between a mountain pass that one time in Malaysia on a family trip. My father is urging me on from the other side against the better judgment of my fear of heights: everything in the body tenses up, it feels like the next step is air beneath my feet. Literally, this is the case. The gut plunges, my hands race for something to grab. The gut says “don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,” but the breath is steady and calm.

I know this departure is one of many to come, maybe a lesson in saying goodbye. I think of how there will one day be a final bridge, and there will be someone there, standing at the other end, urging me across, telling me I can do it. They’ve done it, they will say, and you’ve done this many times. Everything in my body will cling on to the world and its attachments, but the breath will have its own plans.

 

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