I am sitting at a café overlooking the Singapore River, watching bumboats ferry tourists up and down the green-brown waterway, diesel engines throbbing, tacky red lanterns swaying, eyeball-painted prows neatly slicing the sludge. Conversations in half a dozen languages wash over me. I’m waiting for the rain to come, brief and furious, as it usually does this time of day, this time of year.
I’m on the other side of the world from Texas, from Austin, from you and the Drag and 6th Street and decent Tex-Mex and any season other than summer. It is late afternoon here; there, it’s the hour when drunks make their perilous way home from parties and bars and, yes, strip joints. But even on the other side of today’s date, on the other side of the world, and even six years distant, your words have had an effect.
Let us be frank about the past, X, because at this late date there is no reason not to be. Because a dialog that begins with avoidance works quite well in fiction, but less well in real life: You lied constantly when we were together. You slept with other men, including my best friend. You tried to get me sent to prison when it was over. You destroyed every scrap of my writing you could get your hands on. You got me arrested. You cost me thousands of dollars that I couldn’t afford. You hounded and harassed me. You caused me massive shame. You were the physical embodiment of the Furies.
You were, quite literally, the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I learned to endure. I learned, because I had no choice. I learned to be a stone, indifferent to the tempest. And then, after the storm finally spent itself, I had to learn how to be flesh and blood again.
And now, after six years, you send me a few emails to say you’re sorry, to tell me you owe me a pack of cigarettes.
You say, “I am not going to lie. I have carried you around with me every where.”
I don’t feel anger, or love, or loss. I don’t know exactly what it is I feel, to be honest, and I don’t have any desire to put it under a microscope, to dissect it, to see how it is articulated or if it crawls, walks or flies. It is something tinged with a mild disbelief, a vague regret. Let’s leave it at that.
Here is the truth of the matter, X: Six years ago you closed the door on any possible future that included us together. You closed that door, and then you locked it, and then you boarded it up, and then you doused the whole thing in jet fuel and then you burned it down to the ground. I need for you to understand this, not because I wish you any suffering (I don’t), nor because I hold any grudges (I don’t), but because it is the plain, unadorned, unvarnished truth.
Now the light is failing. Now the red swaying lanterns on the low, wide bumboats come on, making some minor huckster transformation from tawdry to quaint. Now the faces of all the tourists taken for a ride are a dozen different tints of crimson blur. Around me, passing by me, I can hear if not understand snatches of conversations in Mandarin, Tamil, Tagalog, Malay, German, French, three flavors of English, and some Slavic tongue that may or may not be Russian. Singapore is one of the world’s smallest countries, and the world’s biggest transit lounge. It suits me. Nothing is really real, but everything is shiny, clean and neat. Cigarette packs carry godawful photos of what your habit is doing to your lungs, your brain, your mouth, your family. And unless you dig and dig and find the few stray souls who haven’t been sanitized for your protection, no one expects you, as an outsider, to have any answers here; no one cares if you do or don’t. No one cares what the questions are. It’s all just about commerce. And in that vacuum, I am free. Free to create and destroy and work like a dog and slack like a moron; I’m free to write or not write, free to think or not think. Nobody cares. Not if you can’t show them the bottom line. And that’s the most refreshing, the most liberating thing about this place. When everyone is just passing through, when everything is temporary, it becomes so very easy after a while to see and understand the nature of permanence. You learn to infer by the absence of things.
So you want to be a writer. You’ve had writer’s block for four years. I’ll give you some advice: burn everything you’ve written to date.
I’m not being flippant. I am utterly serious. Trash it. Those words are an anchor weighing you down. They’re the One Ring, shining in the darkness down under the mountain. Your body of work to date is the thing you keep polishing and admiring and fingering like a fetish. It is the thing that is keeping you from writing.
Get rid of it. And then write. Write until you write something that amazes you, something you can hardly believe came out of your brain. And then keep writing.
Write a quarter of a million words. Then you will be in a place where you are prepared to be a writer.
I don’t want your apologies. They’re no good to me now. I’ve moved far beyond the place where they have any meaning. But I do want you to atone for my words that you destroyed. And the only way to do that is to replace them with your own.
Do that, and we can talk. Maybe I’ll tell you about my life, my wife, my son. Do that, and I can think of you not as the woman who tried to destroy me, but as the writer who earned her place at the table.
Let’s just leave it at that for now.