Dad Never Forgot That Durian

U2, the Irish rock band, release an album recently. Because it is an assortment of its old hits rather than a nauseating duet with a boy band, I bought it, played it and thought of my first boyfriend.

It was 12 years ago, and we were both in Raffles Junior College. I was a student of Computer and Pure Science with no knowledge of rock music and independent bands. He was an ex-St Joseph's Institution boy who poured scorn on all songs played on the radio and recorded his own compilation tapes.

I liked the Power of Love, the theme song from Top Gun, until he explained to me why I shouldn't. I shouldn't, he whispered, even tell his friends that I listened to it.

The only mainstream music he tolerated was U2's - this was in the years when the band was still recording songs about Martin Luther King and boy bands were, thankfully, still in their infancy, literally.

Listening to U2's Pride brought me back to the days when holding a boys hand turned my knees to water.

I was 18 (I had a strict mother) and it was right after the National Day Parade, which my class was made to attend. He was a rougish rugby in my class, who ran out of the stadium with me when the parade was over. He offered to drive me home.

I agreed.

On the way to Pandan Valley where I lived, he suggested a detour. Wouldn't it be a good idea to watch the trains rush past at night? He asked.

Oh yes, I agreed breathlessly.

(I was not overly burdened with expectations. After all, I had spent 10 years in the Convent, with nuns and their anti-abortion messages.)

So, in a route which would lead us to RJC, we walked down the slope from the main road, stood on the overhead bridge and waited for the trains. They never arrived, but I trembled when he held my hand the whole night.

Sadly, my husband has to work a lot harder to achieve the same result, but I was young then and it was a heady romance.

My first boyfriend was far more experienced than I was in, well, BGRs as they were then known. Boy-girl relationships.

I was his Number Two. His number one didn't exit the usual teenage dumpee-dumper way. She had died of a tragic illness. He visited her grave and brought her flowers.

And that automatically made him the most sensitive and mysterious man on earth. Plus, he was well-muscled and led the scrum in rugby games.

I don't know if it is still true now, but in my time, rugby was the game in RJC. And when you are 18, you think it is glamorous for a chap to be able to unhinge his shoulders like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, a condition which apparently afflicted many players.

     Our breakup was a dramatic mess.

He was in England, and I was in the National University of Singapore. After as particularly devastating quarrel in the middle of his summer holidays in Singapore, he had banged on my hostel door and yelled declarations of love for about 30 minutes.

As it turned out, I was in class and missed everything, but my hostel mates told me about it.

     It was slightly scary then, but what I wouldn't give to have my husband put on this sort of display now. Now when I tell him I went out for dinner with a dashing young man, he says lazily; "Had a good time?"

So, to be fair, I do the same to him, although with considerably less panache.

My aunt had told me not to marry Onn the first time she laid eyes on him.

"He has got that certain look. Girls will be after him and you will be worrying all the time," she said.

She is wrong on both accounts. He has infrequent proposals, and I don't worry, not much anyway.

It is true that I entertain the possibility of Onn having a romp in bed with another girl, but the main feeling is curiosity, rather than rage.

(Conventional wisdom insists that women are more likely than men to throw a fit when their spouses stray because they tie sex up with all sort of emotional baggage. Men, on the other hand, just want to compare sizes.)

(Well, wrong, in short. Not about the men, but women aren't interested in comparing sizes because we think we can make up for lack of size with sheer enthusiasm. The rest is just a Trojan Horse to give us the moral upper hand.)

I take what may appear to be a cavalier attitude to the Significant Other, not because I can't get up enough energy to mind or because I take him for granted.

It's just that, well, marriage is not a BGR, is it? No longer filled with callow quarrels, dramatic gestures, protestations of love.

Neither is it measured by rituals and conventions. Each contract is as unique as a snowflake, and if not understood, as ephemeral.

Onn and I learnt the terms of our contract from my father.

By the time we married my parents had been divorced for more than 15 years. My primary-school days were filled with Catechism in school and my mother's whisky-soaked voice at home.

She traced my father's infidelities for me, his constant companions in the long engineering projects overseas.

Still, in all these years, he never remarried and he never failed to call us on my mother's birthday to remind us to buy her a cake.

When he died a few months ago, I found my mother's photograph in one of his wallets.

Two years ago, a month before her birthday, Onn and I arranged to meet him at a Geylang durian stall. It was a very windy night, in the middle of the durian season.

"You know," my father said slowly, "the best durian I had was with your Mum, by a small stream in Padang Rengas. Wah, I can never forget."

I knew he wasn't talking about the durians.

At the moment, I didn't care that he was a wrinkled-jowl old man, with cloudy eyes and a shock of white hair. I didn't care that his marriage had failed, and that he had been weak-willed and unable to resist temptation.

I saw a young man in love with his wife. He ran the distance and kept the faith and, at that moment, I wanted to buy him all the durians in the world.

Leong Ching
The Straits Times, Life!, December 19, 1998