Modern Love: What love is to readers

How do I love thee? It may be hard to count all the ways, but The Sunday Times asked readers to try saying it within 200 words ahead of Valentine's Day. We received more than 150 love stories that ran the gamut of human emotion - from the comic to the tragic, from the supernatural to the mundane, from romantic love to the love between parents and children, and even what it's like to spend Valentine's Day without any love at all. Here are 15 of our favourites, curated and edited by Olivia Ho


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

A "Socksy" Tale

As they reached the Korean restaurant, he realised he would need to remove his shoes - and the torn socks he had worn in his hurry to be on time for this date would be a major embarrassment.

He was desperate to impress. In their three previous meetings, she had been aloof and a perfunctory handshake had been the closest he had been able to get.

They were led to the sunken table to be seated and his walk was awkward as he tried to twist his feet to cover the toes that were sticking out of his socks.

She didn't seem to have noticed his discomfort and smiled at him as they settled in.

But then he felt a feminine foot touch his bare toes. A shiver went through him, transmitting itself through his toes to her feet and then to the rest of her. It was as though a circuit had been completed and the current surged through them both. Her smile grew wider and her eyes shone as she looked hungrily at him.

Years later, those socks are their prized memory and their ever-hopeful teenage son wears torn socks on all his dates.

• A. Sagar, 57, is an entrepreneur in the industrial services sector


Virtually Made

The start was the silent white-on-red notification in her e-mail, a reply she had never expected to get for her comment made on a YouTube video on Mass Effect-the stage of a role play, the role play of a choice chosen out of three others. Her choice was to respond and, despite everything she had been told about men on the Internet, she chose to keep on talking, moving from comment section to e-mail to Facebook messages written like letters.

She worried that she was brown. She worried that she was not thin and that she was not his colour. She worried that her PhD was taking far too long and that she was never going to finish. Ever. Also, what was she even thinking doing one?

She worried, above all, that she was far too baggaged, too circumstances-hostaged and too permanent-head-damaged for love. And she went on worrying about all those things and about all new things, even with the ring on her finger and the home they were building together. Each worry, coming and going, never quite taking hold, proved to have far less conviction than the words of two people, virtually made.

• Nuraliah Norasid, 32, is a researcher and the author of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize-winning novel The Gatekeeper (2017).


Tropical Love

"A little to the left," said Kumar as he brought the camera up close. A bolt of lightning split the sky outside. The girl tilted her head and smiled.

"Neutral expression," he said. "It's a passport photo."

Her eyes lost their crinkle and her lips drooped a bit. Kumar stood staring into the camera for a long time. He studied her pale lips and slightly upturned nose. Her hair fell on her shoulders, the way a stream falls off a faraway mountain. She blinked once and looked into the camera again.

"How long will it take?"

Kumar cleared his throat. His hands fumbled with the camera as the rain made strange patterns upon the shop window. He trained his eye on the camera again but the girl turned to squint at the sky.

He clicked - once, twice, thrice. She turned back and looked at him with her mouth open. The sound of the camera shutter filled the air as Kumar continued to click.

Her eyes softened and she laughed. The first signs of sweet love stained her skin.

Outside, the Javanese mynah danced as a rainbow arched across the milky sky.

• Susheela Menon, 42, teaches creative writing at a community centre.


Automat

She looked as though she had stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting. With that hat and coat, she should be painting the town red on a Friday, not sitting here with red eyes and a coffee.

His ear ached from making cold calls all day; all he wanted now was a hot dinner. He noticed the tissue in her hand, white as her phone. Between mouthfuls, he would lift his eyes, watching her stare at the screen, careful not to meet her eyes for fear of being caught gawking.

Suddenly, she stiffened. A paroxysm of texting.

What happened, he wondered. If this were a movie, the scene might cut to the messages between her and her philandering lover. There would be music. Possibly subtitles. He might even offer...

She got up just as he was done eating. Two women were chatting about collagen injections. One of them shot the waiter a dirty look when he cleared his throat and her plate. The manager was pulling down the roller shutters. Too late: she had already walked away, the tissue tight in her fist.

• Loh Guan Liang, 34, is a poet whose collections include Transparent Strangers (2012) and Bitter Punch (2016).


The Promise


PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANNA VICTORIA YATES

My father is the best father anyone could imagine. He is the loving husband of my mother, always making her smile.

He has taken me to soccer training since I was six years old. I'm now 11 and he still does it.

One morning, I was searching for a pair of pliers in my father's tool box but found a small, dirty book instead. It was an old diary with his writing in it.

I flipped to a random page and noticed the date was exactly one month before my birth. Written there was the following:

"I am 18 years old, an alcoholic, someone who will not be able to complete school. I used to cut myself and I was sexually abused as a child. I have also been arrested twice for car theft. Next month, I could write: 'I am a father at 18, still a child myself.' But I swear I will do everything right for my little daughter. I will be the father I never had."

I don't know how he did it, but he achieved his goal and really became the best father I could ever imagine.

• Anna Victoria Yates, 13, is a Secondary 2 student at Bedok View Secondary School.


Oi!

It's been a week and still no one has come to see him. His wrists are black and scabby and his ankles are raw with welts. They must itch but he can't reach down to scratch them.

He shouts regularly at all hours with a voice that surprises for his gaunt frame. Expletives and cries of frustration for the pain that racks his bones, that his smattering of Hokkien, Malay and Mandarin cannot explain.

It'll be V-Day on Thursday and my room has a steady stream of fresh flowers, blooming the drab walls into a smile, but every time I wheel down the corridor, he's hunched into himself, eyes tightly shut, like a pine tree bent against unrelenting wind, curled into a flicker of memory; brittle shelter open to the elements.

I ask my nurse about him. She smiles and says it is dementia, but in a slightly more violent form. The staff call him Mr Oi! because he doesn't press the bell, but shouts to get attention.

Sometimes, when he starts yelling, she takes a walk. When she's back, the ward is silent, save for the beep and chatter of machines that monitor everything but loneliness.

• Marc Nair, 37, is a poet, photographer and National Arts Council Young Artist Award recipient whose works include poetry collections Spomenik (2016) and Vital Possessions (2018).


My Love Bloomed Through Reading


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

My love story started with books.

One Saturday in December 1974, after borrowing two novels from the National Library, I stopped over at the MPH Bookstore.

I took a book and, leaning against a wall, browsed through it. Soon, I became aware of a man standing at the shelf from which I had taken the book.

I glanced at him. He was staring at me.

He immediately approached me and said: "Sorry to disturb you, but I want the book you are reading. I came here last week but I did not buy it. And if you do not want it, I shall buy it."

He told me why he wanted the book and I became interested in it. He bought it and suggested having coffee at a cafe at the Capitol Theatre.

I agreed.

He then lent me the book Japan Today. I, too, love Japan.

Two weeks later, we met at this same cafe and I returned the book.

He lent me another book, a novel set in Japan.

Thus, a fortnightly "book club" began and along with it, love bloomed between us.

A year later, we married.

• Khairon Bibi, 69, is a retired tutor.


Binary


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

I said to her: "Binary star systems are born when one star gets close to another. Three things can happen."

I took our wallets and put one in a distant orbit of the other.

"One is the detached orbit: two stars orbit one another, but do not interact. There is no intimacy, just an orbit out of convenience.

"Then, there's the semi-detached orbit."

I took her half-empty cup of Milo Dinosaur and placed it near my own half-full one. I moved mine around hers.

"The stars get close. But one star is usually larger and has a stronger gravitational pull. It sucks up material from the other star."

I emptied the contents of my cup into hers, which began overflowing.

"Until one becomes a hollow, darkened shell, and the other becomes more massive and closer to implosion and collapse."

"Finally, there's the contact orbit."

I took her hand in mine. "Two stars dance in orbit, each one feeding the other, growing closer and closer until eventually, they become one star: brighter and stronger than they ever were individually."

Our eyes met. Electric.

Then she said, "No, I meant who's your favourite star? Like, Lady Gaga or Benedict Cumberbatch?"

• Suffian Hakim, 32, is the author of the parody Harris Bin Potter And The Stoned Philosopher (2015) and comic novel The Minorities (2017).


In Sickness And In Health


PHOTO: VICKY CHONG

One day, after not hearing from Daddy for a few months, Mommy suddenly received a phone call from The Witch.

Mommy did not even bother to greet her. She just listened silently as the muffled voice went on.

"You can't just return him as if he is some defective goods," she finally answered.

But The Witch did return Daddy. He moved back to the family home eight months after he moved out of it, critically ill with terminal lung cancer.

Daddy's condition was so bad he couldn't get out of bed. Mommy fed him in bed, sponged him and read to him, like what she did for me, as though Daddy was now one of her children.

One night, the entire extended family was summoned to Daddy's bedside. I sat on Daddy's bed, holding his palm which felt dry and cool. I didn't know how long we sat, waiting, as we listened for Daddy's wheeze and gasp after every long, still pause.

Mommy swiped a piece of moist cotton across his lips every half hour. I yawned, laid my head on Daddy's chest and closed my eyes. I could hear his heart beating slowly as I drifted off.

• Vicky Chong, 53, is a recent graduate of Lasalle College Of The Arts with a masters in creative writing.


Valentine's Day Message


PHOTO: OVIDIA YU

"Come to my house next Thursday for the stone god's birthday!"

Valentine's Day. Great.

My Dad was busy with his new wife and my supposed girlfriend was doing tsunami relief in the Sunda Strait, so why not make my crazy old grandmother happy?

After her husband died, Ah Ma worked as a spirit medium, conveying messages from the dead with the round marble table set in a teak base that we now set the Bu Dong Shi incense on.

Then the heavy teak table tilted, then lifted off the floor and started turning.

"Hey, is this table..."

"Why you so angry with Annie?"

A man's voice came out of my grandmother.

"I'm not... who... what..."

"You should be proud. Instead, you get angry, make her sad?"

"It's not safe there! Anyway I'm not angry. I'm worried. I love her!"

"Then tell her!"

The table grounded itself and something fell off.

"Here..." Ah Ma, speaking in her own voice, held out a tiny, heart shaped stone, "from your grandfather."

"For me?"

"No lah, Goondu... to give your Annie!"

"Chinese spirits do Valentine's Day?"

"All spirits say the same thing all the time. You people only pay attention some days."

• Ovidia Yu, 57, is a playwright and novelist whose works include the Crown Colony murder mystery trilogy (2017 to present).


Kites


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

A day does not end young. I let the road take me out of the park.

Then comes the rustle of rain. A first miracle: I am not caught in it.

A second miracle: to meet you, within minutes, on the bus. You are on your way to work.

At our fifth meeting, I describe your intense look watching rain cascade on the window. You laugh - I have not felt that before.

By noon, we are seeing each other a lot. I come to the shop where you work, and we have lunch.

You mention a child at our 35th time. I say she must be lovely if she wears your eyes.

By mid-afternoon, we live together, the three of us. She loves kites, how they spend their lives waiting for the right wind.

The moon peeks in while I hold you. You ask for the 83rd time how we could have met. Do I tell you today?

That morning, I went to the park to die. My heart was broken irreparably. I wanted to see the world, dark as it was, differently. I would that the sunrise knew I could not afford it.

Then I gave myself another chance.

• Gwee Li Sui, 48, is the author of books such as poetry collection Death Wish (2017) and humour book Spiaking Singlish (2017).


Dinner For Two


PHOTO: DAWN TEO

I never knew my father to be a passionate man. His flippant attitude was the underlying reason for my distancing myself from him in my years of growing up. Lips sealed, hands still and eyes always looking out of the window.

Recently, as part of the Aim For Zero campaign with women's rights group Aware, a video about sexual assault made its way to my father's feed, with my face and my voice speaking about a fact unknown to him - a reality unfamiliar.

Bursts of anger and harsh words escaped his lips, his rough hands clenched into fists - directed at the incident but never at me.

"Why did you not say anything when it happened?"

"I did not feel like I could."

Silence followed, but this quiet was not accompanied by distance, nor blame nor shame.

Then we sat at the family table for dinner. The hand-prepared dishes were a mere taste of the depth of his love for this daughter he was seeing for the very first time.

• Dawn Teo, 24, is a writer with a creative studio. She was among the 10 sexual assault survivors featured in the Aware video.


Till Death Do Us Part


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

"I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong."

He turns to the voice behind him. She's slight, wispy like a leaf, no more than 20 years old.

"Such cynicism is unbecoming of one so young," he says wanly. He traces his wife's name on the marble tombstone, just to feel her again:

Jessica Chan: 1985-2015

Loved always

He tries to recall the softness of her skin, her scent after shower and her moonlight smile. But for a moment, the memory is elusive.

"Do you still love her?"

"Why do you think I keep coming back?"

"Habit. Like me."

"Who have you lost?"

"My baby."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. Every love is its own sorrow."

They meet over the next few weeks, spending time they no longer own with their loved ones. Against his will, he finds himself drawn to her world-weariness, the cryptic way she sees love.

"My time's almost up," she says one day.

He nods. He can feel his own spirit waning too.

"So is mine. Marry me before you go. Till death do us part."

She laughs, taking his hand.

"Of course. We can't die a second time, can we?"

• Felix Cheong, 53, is the author of 13 books, including five volumes of poetry, a trilogy of flash fiction and a children's picture book.

 


It's The Little Things

"Isn't it weird to date someone so short? She only comes up to your armpits, which must smell terrible. And don't you look paedophilic next to her?"

Yet does dating someone shorter really change anything? You don't make a conscious adjustment. The body moves itself.

One step lower on the escalator and you're eye to eye, with room for another to pass. Side by side walking, one on the sidewalk and one on the gravel. Or one up on the ledge, hopping parkour-style from bench to berm - the important thing is that you're hand in hand.

In fact, isn't it a nightmare to date someone exactly the same height? Where do all the noses go? It just seems like a banging entanglement of elbows and knees.

The human body's contours are protrusions and hollows, knuckles and notches - the pointy bits weren't designed to line up! Instead, I love how her neck nocks into the crook of my arm, how her crown nestles in the curve between my chin and Adam's apple.

And how do these hypothetical same-heighted people deal with escalators? An awkward standing queue and chance to check your phone? A long escalator is a date. God, I love escalators.

• Joshua Ip, 36, is a Singapore Literature Prize-winning poet and a National Arts Council Young Artist Award recipient whose collections include Making Love With Scrabble Tiles (2013) and Footnotes On Falling (2018).


Still Time


PHOTO: CYRIL WONG

What I know to be true: after your liver cancer, parts of you weigh down the present.

(Dusty shoe cabinet, hairs in the drain hole, slippers in disparate directions.)

There is nothing that doesn't bring me back. Time threatens to rise up and float away.

(Floor mat slightly askew, unread letters for you in the mailbox, dead cockroaches huddled in forgotten corners of the flat.)

The funeral was over a month ago, my friends keep telling me.

(Because you hated cockroaches, I killed them for you, arraying them like a proud cat for your inspection.)

I still don't throw them away, the cockroaches. Maybe ants will carry them away.

(Crestfallen blanket on the floor, lust-red pillows, water stains on the table from a weeping cup of ice.)

Maybe ants will carry me away. They tell me I still have time; there is time for future love.

(Framed pictures of your late parents on the wall. Say hello to them for me.)

"Nobody is too old to meet somebody new," you said.

(A photo on my phone of two of us below a Supertree at Gardens by the Bay, your arm like a bracket over my shoulder.)

There is still time.

• Cyril Wong, 41, is a Singapore Literature Prize-winning writer whose works include poetry collection The Lover's Inventory (2015) and novel The Last Lesson Of Mrs De Souza (2013).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 10, 2019, with the headline 'LOVE IS...'. Print Edition | Subscribe