Li Sian Goh | Fiction


When the message came, I was reluctant to meet with my old friend Lysa. To be honest, I was terrified it would unlock something in me—I, who after several years of sustained hardship had emerged out of the wilderness of my twenties into something approaching stability, or as close to it as was possible in this precarious day and age. Truth be told, I hadn’t realized that seduction could be so intensely boring. I was reading a novel at the time, and one of the things it said was that as a woman turns thirty she starts looking about her for a dining set to settle down with, and then it’s just there, like a stone, for the rest of one’s life.

That’s all there was to be said about me, however. Lysa was coming to the United States, to the city where I had made that nice little life for myself, to begin graduate school. You see, I imagined her eyes flashing innocently, what you do I can do too, in fact, what’s so special about immigrating to the United States? I can find a job here, I can get married to an American too, and in forty years’ time if the world is even still around my children will write more obsequious tributes to their immigrant mother than yours will, they’ll pull out grainy pictures of us together, and that will be our American story wrapped up in a bow all complete…


I needed to calm down. I slipped on my shoes and plunged into the delicacy of a late spring afternoon, the air thick like honey. What flowers in the neighbors’ front yards, what birdsong, what bees! It was a season of daffodils and tulips and early irises. Here it seemed like nothing truly disastrous could ever happen, no ugly emotions could ever have any reality. It was a clean, beautiful neighborhood moved by the spirit of love, or at least money.

Recently, James and I had moved. For much of my time in America, I had lived in graduate school digs—a crumbling sweaty apartment whose hardwood floors had been covered by plastic tile laminate in West Philadelphia. Now we had purchased a small house in Powelton Village with a trim front yard. The new neighborhood wasn’t far away from the old one at all. We had done most of the move by ourselves, shuttling boxes and sticks of disassembled furniture the fifteen city blocks of distance between the old and new homes. But it might as well have been a world away. Most of our neighbors were white. When I pointed this out to James, who was also white, they said, well, in the old neighborhood we were also gentrifiers. There’s no perfect solution. I said yes, but. Then stopped. I had the sense of stepping away from a problem that was an intractable knot, one which to disentangle would have caused us both an impossible amount of pain and frustration, and which was not worth dissolving anyway. All of my energy at the time had turned inward to thoughts of rugs, of dishware, of throws and other furnishings. It did not seem inherently worthy to beautify one’s own surroundings, for one’s own delectation and that of a select few others. Yet I continued to do so, with a fervency both guilty and delighted. With such preoccupations does one fritter away one’s one wild and precious life.


When James came back from work that day, I said to them: Lysa texted me today. She’s coming to Philadelphia.

We were at the dining table, eating a salad. At the first sign of good weather last weekend I had gone hog wild at the farmers’ market: ramps, yes, asparagus, yes, tiny strawberries in a teal cardboard carton, herbs! James had hovered at my elbow egging me on: yes, we can get that, let’s buy some salmon from the fishmonger to go with the arugula, look at the fillets, so neon orange, doesn’t that cheese look good? The total amount had been exorbitant and as we left they murmured, overcome: I’m just glad you’re eating again. All this produce I’d sliced and blanched and arranged on the table, and from this we assembled our own salad bowls, topped with flakes of salmon and drizzled with lemony dressing.

Who? James said. Oh, your ex.

She’s not really my ex.


When you compare the amount of time we dated for against the amount of time I’ve known her, it seems pretty negligible.

Well, it just seems weird and homophobic to call her your friend. Like a disapproving aunt—“your friend.”

I shrugged. I was peeling the shell off a boiled egg, the cooking of which I had timed to ensure its yolk achieved a jammy consistency. I didn’t want to leave any fragments behind.

What’s she doing in Philly?

She’s starting an MFA at Temple.

I didn’t know she was a writer.

I didn’t respond, and so neither did James. As they finished eating and began stacking the plates in order to carry them to the kitchen sink, where they would rinse them off before being loading them in the dishwasher—a sensibility that has always struck me as Midwestern in the extreme—they leaned over and touched my hair, saying: you don’t have to see her if you don’t want to, you know.


Of course I had to see her. More intolerable than the thought of seeing her was the thought of not seeing her, or the thought that she didn’t want to see me. I punished myself immediately for the thought. Of course she wants to see you, she texted you, I told myself, before filing away the thought of Lysa as completely as I could. She wasn’t arriving until the end of August, anyway. All that summer we occupied ourselves by settling into the new house—ordering furniture, rearranging the layouts of rooms and putting up pictures. One of my friends had also recently purchased and moved into her own house with her husband, and our texts from the time were furnished with competitive logistical detail. We did other things—walked around the neighborhood, ate brunch outdoors, and kept track of the city’s caseload, rising and ebbing like a planet’s tide, moored to an unpredictable moon. In the wake of Roe being overturned I thought to myself, why does she want to come to this country, live in this society? For a moment anger, my anger at what seemed like her blithe carelessness, slapped me in the face. From the real Lysa I heard only intermittently, once asking whether I thought it was worth forking out for graduate student housing or looking for an apartment on her own, in the city. I cast my mind back, put myself once again in the shoes of the new arrival I had been five years ago, and tried to be as helpful as I could.

The whole summer seemed to stretch out in front of us, infinite, then it was late July, the sunflowers our neighbors planted drooping in the heat, only a month until she arrived. Then only a week, only a day, now, now, Lysa off the plane and waiting with her brand-new student visa in the immigration queue, Lysa being whisked through the city in the back of an Uber, Lysa settling in at the Airbnb where she would test herself, and quarantine. Lysa making her way (venturesome, as I never was) across the city, ringing the doorbell, Lysa on our doorstep, here in the flesh, here at last. We embraced.

Come in, I said.

Lysa was wearing cuffed jeans and a T-shirt with an illustrated skeleton screenprinted on it; her nose ring glinted briefly as she stepped across the threshold; immediately and only briefly I felt overdressed in my collared shirtdress. I asked about her flight, the place she was staying, in Graduate Hospital; I felt unable to summon the warmth that seemed necessary. I nodded along, an actor waiting for her cue, and asked if she wanted something to drink. Then I turned my head and called up the stairs. James! She’s here!

As I was getting us both some water they strolled in. Seeing their amiable face was a relief. So you’re the famous Lysa I’ve heard so much about, they said, lying through their teeth, and the both of them hugged.

Not as much as I’ve heard about you, she said, lying back. Congratulations on the wedding. This is a really nice house.

Thanks, they said, and drew her into conversation, conversation of the kind I could only imagine her sneering at: How was the flight? When does school start? The F in MFA doesn’t stand for fiction? Yet she seemed drawn in, her smooth hair shingled neatly over her bent and listening head, her liveliness less present than any time I had known her in the years prior.

I had made a roast chicken. The timer for it went off on my phone, and as I hurried to the kitchen to retrieve it from the oven I heard James say, she’s been cooking all day, and what sounded like laughter in response. As I served dinner, carving the chicken into tidy eighths, James inhaled and said, that smells good. I’d bought the smallest possible organic chicken at the market that weekend, thinking regretfully of the kampung chickens in Singapore and how fat and flavorless American chickens seemed in comparison. I’d slathered it with liberal amounts of butter and garlic and rosemary, basting it with honey towards the end. It was James’ mother’s recipe.

The wine we served in the liberally sized, globe-shaped wineglasses we had received as a wedding present. The small potatoes and the peas, the salad in the salad bowl. In the fringe, rectangles of pastry and a bowl each of sweetened whipped cream and berries awaited assembly. I had spent all day cooking and had gradually lost my appetite from prolonged exposure to the sights and smells of food. I pushed my chicken around my plate and listened to rather than joining in with James and Lysa’s talk, about life in America, the things Lysa had noticed so far. Well the streets look different, she said, and no one wears a mask.

It’s terrible, we agreed, the way no one seems to care, it’s not like you ‘get’ anything from being unmasked on trains and buses the way you might want to, say, eat indoors, even though that was something we had given up again weeks ago. This was a conversation James and I had had many times, each time repeating ourselves so we could agree with one another, repeating ourselves to vent. Although I agreed with Lysa, even though I often felt like a self-righteous scold for thinking judgmental and angry thoughts about people who didn’t mask, some part of me felt hurt and defensive too, the way ‘America’ was synonymous with disease and state failure, how I seemed implicated in that. When we spoke about the city she had a funny story about that too, how loud the friendly people became when you behaved in a way that seemed to them not right.

We laughed, I felt my laughter was dutiful and obligatory. Truth be told, I had also found such aggression strange and alarming when I had first moved here; now, over the years, I was beginning to find the Philadelphian spirit charming and even somewhat admirable—the old world charm, the urbanism, the street talk, the poverty, the Gritty of it all—even as my complete and utter lack of it marked me, my quietness, my preference for formality in dress, a perpetual outsider. Under Lysa’s scrutiny I felt a tender and fierce protectiveness of the city come over me. Ah, why don’t you come home? my mother had said, after I had graduated. Guns… hate crimes against Asians… so unsafe. After James and I had eloped she had stopped asking, but she had also stopped talking to me.

What’s your job? Lysa asked me at some point. I don’t actually know, sorry.

I shrugged. I hadn’t expected her to know—when Lysa and I had met, it was during a time when everyone was connected on Facebook. After we all moved on to other social media platforms, we hadn’t really kept in touch and I wasn’t even sure if she was on Instagram.

I’m a postdoc at Penn, I said. I work at their gun violence research center.

James jumped in. After she finished, they said, they all loved her so much they had to find a way to get her to stay on!

I laughed a little limply. This seemed like a cruelly optimistic reading of my career. Most of my working hours were spent coding large datasets and summarizing papers with titles like ‘Do school resource officers contribute to public safety outcomes?’, all the while in thrall to the same departmental honchos I had been in thrall to when I was actually in graduate school. I strenuously disliked the person I had been throughout my graduate school years—eager and obedient, too keen to present her brain as a malleable entity to be bent and shaped by departmental fiat, and by remaining there, I continually felt the lack of distance between the person I had been then and the person I was trying to be, now. Still, I had been grateful for a job, a reason to stay in Philadelphia.

What do you do? Lysa asked.

I’m a criminal defense attorney.

She shook her head. The both of you are such a power couple, she said. A do-gooder power couple.

In return, as if to repay her for her casual flattery, James asked Lysa about her writing and she said mysteries… genre fiction… but it’s really about women who eat men like air. James was unphased, they laughed quietly and said they’d love to read her work sometime. I try and try to do better, Lysa said, but even so, after all this time, my favorite writer is still your wife!


Lysa and I had met as second-years at the National University of Singapore. We were both in the Arts faculty—at the time, I was a Sociology major who wrote papers with titles like “Should we abolish the family?” and “Inside the online subculture of teenage shoplifters.” Lysa did English, and fulfilled all the stereotypes: she wore black, held forth on Austen and Alfian with equal amounts of affection, and performed at spoken word events, where you could find her outside the venue afterward, smoking a cigarette. But what she was most known around campus for was the fact that, as a freshman, she had refused to participate in the orientation games the students’ union had organized, decrying them as sexualized and heteronormative, disrespectful of one’s bodily autonomy. Also she refused to sing the hall songs or participate in the hall cheer competitions. I privately agreed with her, but sang along, or pretended to anyway. You were given points for extracurricular participation, points which you needed to continue staying in halls beyond your first year. My parents’ marriage, never ideal, had reached a new phase of falling apart. Having had a first taste of somewhat circumscribed freedom in halls, I was eager to stay on. No more weepy silences, no tension at meals, no sudden and inexplicable outbursts. No more being pig in the middle.

That semester, I took a creative writing elective, despite the sneaking suspicion that to write fiction in a world suffused with terror and chaos was to engage in self-indulgence. I was full of self-serious thoughts like that; last year I had taken a class about gender and care and in my most fevered fantasies imagined myself at the vanguard of a feminist revolution that would upend all our ideas about love, care, work, money, and authority. I kept these thoughts to myself, mouthed along when it was a question of hall songs, and applied for an internship at the local feminist non-profit.

The creative writing seminar was interesting, in any case. The professor showed us examples of novel forms: poems in the shape of things, flash fiction, and expected us to produce more examples of those things. “Creative” writing seemed to me an oxymoron, it seemed hard to unrestrain myself, to write without thinking about what others in the class would think of my work. Insofar as they cared. I had the sense, when writing, of moving thin paper dolls made of aerogram material around on the page. Most of my energy was directed towards minuscule moments: a cough, a whisper. I usually hated what I wrote. Some of my classmates, I found, found writing freeing. For me it only seemed like another ugly way of exercising restraint, or worse, control. Sometimes I would use an idea, a line, a case study from one of my soci readings. This did nothing to alleviate my feeling that I was being both self-indulgent and exploitative.

After one of our class sessions Lysa had come up to me and said, I liked what you wrote, I help to run a poetry series, you should come and check it out sometime. At the time, up until the point when she said that I was her favorite writer, I had only thought of her being complimentary as a pretext. I went to the event that week, then the one after that, and in fact I just kept coming back. At the events Lysa seemed extremely popular. In contrast to the air of aloofness she seemed to cultivate at school she always seemed so in the thick of things, so busy running around, so known, so popular. But she always seemed happy to see me: You came! She would say. Over text, she would give me long, effusive compliments, and in person, short casual ones that she would drop into our conversations. These compliments tended to be about my intelligence, or my organizational abilities, or my willpower to complete tasks. Once she called me, referring to all three, a “queen.” Like her proposal that we write a novel together, I never knew how to respond to these compliments, since they seemed so obviously overblown, especially given Lysa’s own talent and charisma, as to seem insincere. So I just didn’t respond. It didn’t seem to matter to Lysa, who continued nevertheless. Insofar as I let myself think about it, I concluded that it was yet another form of wordplay for her, coming up with these elaborate speeches, a way of flattering herself—with her own talent, and the idea that she was so prodigious and exceptional at selecting the people she admitted into her life. One week she asked me if I wanted to perform with her and I said: sure. Around the same time we started going out. Although we vowed to keep performing together, after we broke up the poetry partnership didn’t last very long either. In the aftermath, that was when, for the first time, I began to skip meals and learn to ignore the pangs of hunger in my stomach, telling myself: I’m too busy, I’ll eat later. Doing what? I didn’t really know either.


We had started going out a month after we’d first gotten to know each other; the relationship lasted about two months. To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the first heady days of our relationship, perhaps it’s because I don’t have that much cause to think of them these days. I remember that we’d do all the things we did as friends: showing up to poetry events, attending exhibitions and talks; only, now, holding hands. If I didn’t feel that I understood Lysa any more as a girlfriend than I did as a friend, perhaps that was because I understood her so well to begin with.

But I know that can’t be right, because of the way it ended. We were walking along the river in Clarke Quay; it was very late, we had been out clubbing and we were both slightly drunk. At least I was slightly drunk: there was a soused feeling that settled over me as we walked along the dark water glimmering with tints of reflected neon from the late-night businesses along the banks. Lysa and I were arguing about art and whether it was inextricably, could be, should be, tied to a higher political or moral purpose. In retrospect, when revisiting this conversation, I’ve made myself sound better, more well-spoken, and even more noble than I really was. The inconvenient truth I suppose was that I envied Lysa’s blithe certainty that art was what she wanted to do and create and that that was her purpose in life. This was a case of form fitting function: she was talented, self-possessed, was already beginning to be a known personality amongst the lapping shallows of the incestuous Singapore literary scene, while I—insofar as I was acknowledged—was seen as, felt myself to be, a mere hanger-on. If I tried to assuage myself of these bitter insecurities by feeling, somewhat obscurely, that art and literature was somewhat self-indulgent—artists inherently narcissistic—and that serious political thought allied to serious political action was what would really make a difference in the world, this half-baked intuition was severely tested the more I encountered the interesting people Lysa introduced me to. In Singapore, most people seemed to do double duty. Journalists were activists. Filmmakers were dissenters. Feminists were novelists. Et cetera.

And so there we were, drunkenly engaging in a conversation teetering between not serious at all and all too serious. I would rather be a self-righteous radical than the type of artist who scavenges politics for what they can use in their art, I exclaimed. I remember Lysa looked away, smiling slightly, and said nothing. We reached the MRT station, we said our goodbyes before taking the train in opposite directions, I fell asleep at 2 AM and woke up to a light hangover and a text from Lysa saying something like: You’re great but I don’t think we’re v well-suited as girlfriends. Friends?


The funny thing is that we actually did continue being friends, or at least friendly: by then we had too many friends in common to do otherwise. The story of the next two years unfolded as expected. The next semester, I did an exchange in the United States, and by the time I returned Lysa was dating another of our mutual friends, our previous relationship having been relegated to old news. I did all my readings, I interned for the local feminist organization and got a job at a café, I graduated from uni having scooped up first-class honors and a couple of essay prizes. Three months later I left, with two large suitcases, to start graduate school in the United States of America.


The next few years were a humiliation, an endurance. For one reason or another, I got along well enough with the other graduate students in my department, but we were never friends. To this day when I think of the students in my year there’s a certain residual fondness but also, it can’t be denied, an immediate prickle of professional insecurity and all-too-collegiate rivalry. Reading and—eventually—fieldwork took up much of my time, and in the end it seemed hardly worth the effort or time it took to go to a social, to a potluck to speak with one or two people I would inevitably fail to follow up with. Day by day, my life became stained by a loneliness such that when I thought back on my undergraduate days, my relationship with Lysa, I began to think of those times as a sort of paradise lost, a queer utopia, a great good fortune I had failed to recognize as such.

There are two stories I want to recount at this point. The first was that, following a protracted period of ill health, I came to understand America as a sort of game whose rules I had to learn, and fast. With what limited time and energy I had I nevertheless became skilled and persistent, wily even, at winning concessions over the phone. At demanding bill itemizations from health insurers, refunds from customer service representatives, and discount codes from airlines. Scraps, with which to cover one’s precarity.

The second story was that three years into my degree, James and I met online. James was an attorney, a “Midwestern Jew washed up on the East Coast,” as they’d referred to themself on the first date. They were then newly-admitted to the bar, they worked for a legal aid society. All the trappings typical to a love story such as ours are present here: shy glances across the coffeeshop table on the first date, tickets to an arthouse movie, wandering around the city talking and talking and talking, including intensely and earnestly about politics. Going to protests, jumping into bed. Cross-cultural differences, some of which were verbalized, others elided. In summarizing so much, I realize, I’ve compressed the fury of those years into a dense, tight ball of excitement.

One of the summers after we got together, James came with me as I went back to Singapore. Lysa and I had briefly discussed plans to meet up but in the end I’d made my excuses, said I was overloaded. I was only back in the country for three weeks at the time, and it’s true I was busy, but it was also true that saying so had filled me with a sense of power and invincibility.

Next time, I kept saying, next time I’m back, you’ll be at the top of my list.

But there was no next time, or at least the pandemic delayed the next time. In the interval, a lot of life happened so suddenly it brings a sharp cramp of triumph for me to list them all: James transitioned, they paid off one of their student loans, the pandemic began, we got married very suddenly, almost on a whim, I graduated, we bought a house, we moved. This was the end game, the game of luck and chance we had won, the corrupt game, life in America.


Thinking of Lysa brought all these memories back, and yes, that’s why I had been apprehensive about meeting her. I didn’t want her to look at who I was—at the age of nearly thirty—and see no vestiges of the arrogant twenty-year-old she had known: who was this person now, so bourgeois, so conventional! Or worse, with a regard borne of pity: so beaten down by life in America. And then there was the matter of the remark she had made: so flagrantly untrue it seemed clear to she had only made it to somewhat obscurely insult me, or at least to cherish some kind of a private joke. Her fiction had been published a number of times in well-respected literary quarterlies, and once in a widely-read web publication. She was a published writer and I (to make this absolutely clear) was nothing.


We didn’t see each other for months after the dinner. She didn’t text me, and I didn’t text her either, telling myself that she was probably too busy settling into her new apartment and starting her classes. Life went on around us: climate disasters, political earthquakes, the end of the world in increasingly less slow motion. Before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving, then December, nearly Christmas: the late summer dinner with Lysa seemed as distant as the heatwave that had preceded it.

It’s supposed to be the coldest winter on record, James said one evening as they came home. Snow this Wednesday. We’d better prepare.

I sighed wearily. There was always a period in January, sometimes moving into February, when the inches of grey slush on the ground meant I couldn’t run for weeks on end. During these times I was irritable, restless. I would take myself on resentful, trudging walks, trying not to lose the will to live.

It’s supposed to be a climate change thing.

Of course, I said bitterly.

You should check on Lysa, we haven’t heard from her in a while.

I was going to do that.

James didn’t say anything—they were always too nice to say anything—but as they stood, back to me, stowing their jacket in the entryway closet, I could hear them thinking, plain as day: were you?


Lysa replied to my text. I thought she sounded worried. She hadn’t known about the snowstorm, she’d been under siege for the past week, trying to bear up against some end-of-semester deadlines, and the heating in her apartment was known to be unreliable, her landlord worse. On impulse, I suggested that she wait out the snowstorm at our house—we have a spare bedroom, I said. It’ll be warm, we’ll cook, and you can just hole up and write. It’ll be your own personal writing residency. I was worried that I was laying it on too thick, but she accepted with alacrity.

That evening, I lit a candle and put on my favorite sweater—a woolen of deep emerald green I had thrifted years ago, when I first came to the city. I was reading a book about nuns in medieval France at the time, suffused with the logistics of monasticism: plums and sows and recalcitrant novices, simultaneously absorbing and boring, somehow like everyday life. My eyes ran across the page, but I found myself staring out the window at the first flakes drifting down through the night sky with a sudden desire to make a wish, any wish, when the doorbell rang. I placed a bobby pin in the book as a placeholder and when I answered the door it was Lysa. She looked tired, just completely strung out—stringy, unwashed hair, purple bags under her eyes.

Hey, thanks for inviting me.

No problem, I said.

She sniffed the air appreciatively. It smells good.

James had put some braised short ribs on, while I entertained a vague idea of later making a fruit crumble. The electric oven radiated heat, radiated warmth. Through their study door, we heard James’ voice: patient, frustrated, professional.

They’re still at work, I explained. Sometimes the meetings tend to drag. Are you okay?

Yeah, she said. Just tired.

There seemed to be something else, but I had to be satisfied with that, even though I wanted to probe. I wanted to give her everything I had, suddenly, a warm meal, security, a clean well-lit room in which to hole up and create. I wanted to tell her this. Instead we seated ourselves at the dining table with mugs of peppermint tea, sweetened with honey. We began talking about tarot, which Lysa had picked up in the last year. I was going through a crisis, she said, and I’ve found tarot both reassuring and illuminating.

I could give you a reading if you want, Lysa suggested. When I agreed she bent over her yellow Fjallraven backpack, grimy with repeated use, and fumbled through it. A fast food wrapper fluttered out of it and she blushed, before I could offer to get rid of it for her she stuffed it back in the bag and straightened up triumphantly.

Here, she said, stroking her deck as if it were a beloved pet. Her nails had ragged flecks of lime green on them, the remnants of an old manicure. The deck had a stylized illustration of the sun on the cover.

She gave me the usual patter about the cards—what they could do, what they couldn’t do: It’s not really fortune telling—it’s, if there’s a question you’ve been thinking about—the tarot can provide guidance. But again, it’s not really meant to be definitive. There’s a lot of interpretation and meaning-making behind it. Then she held them out to me in a fan: pick one, any one.

I tucked my hair behind my right ear and took a final, fortifying sip of tea. From across the table I looked at Lysa’s face, offering and open. Sure, let’s do it, I said, ready to be read, ready to be told about myself.