When I was a child, I had accustomed myself to the smell of orchids. It was a fresh and earthy scent, tainted by the smell of salt coming from the seashore. Now, as I lie in bed, I can no longer smell orchids but a strong peppermint perfume – a silent reminder of a young blue-eyed boy I met in the summer of 1990. My father was the first orchid farmer to settle in Pulau Ubin.
So it was no surprise that I was named Jim Kie, after the famous Springwater orchid. He built a modest house out of wood and planted orchids on the eastern side of the land. All my three sisters who married before the age of 19, and left the family home. I never did. It was not that I did not have any suitors. Growing up, many in our kampong (village) knew me as the most beautiful of all four sisters. In fact, my father had almost succeeded in marrying me off twice. But I had never felt for any man the same love that I felt for Pulau Ubin, it’s blue ocean, and our small orchid farm. In time, I had grown to accept my fate and stopped accepting suitors. Slowly, the men from our village stopped walking me home. They no longer offered to carry my basket or sing me sweet songs as I passed through the market every morning. I lived alone, in our old family house, tending to my father’s orchids. This didn’t bother me, though. I liked living by myself and found no need to be with a man.
It was a few days after my 40th birthday when Ziqian, my neighbor, invited me to go to the beach to sell orchids. Apparently, a number of American college students would be spending a few weeks in the island. The constant flock of foreigners were nothing new to us, what with Pulau Ubin becoming one of the most visited islands in Singapore. It was a sunny Wednesday morning when Ziqian and I, wearing nothing but our sarong dresses and slippers, carried our baskets to the seashore to await the arrival of the tourists. The sea was calm and the clouds hovered above, providing temporary shade from the sun. The boat arrived, carrying about 10 American boys. I called them boys, because they seemed far from the men of our village who were aged and overworked by island life.
As they got off the boat in their surf shorts and flimsy shirts, they walked over to our fruit and flower stall right on the seashore. Most of them gawked over Ziqian’s durian fruit, calling it “funny” and “weird”. It was no surprise that none of them showed an interest in what I was selling. However, when most of them ran over to the edge of the shore, one of the Americans approached me. He was a young boy in his early twenties. Like the rest of the group, he had pale skin that was showing traces of sunburn. He was wearing a sleeveless white shirt, showing off muscular arms slightly dripping with sweat. His silver blonde hair reached down to the length of his chin. He bent down to the level of where I was seated on the sand, and slightly touched the petals of the orchids in the basket.
“What are these flowers?” He asked. His voice was low but clean, a sweet relief from the rough tone of Singaporean men that I was used to. For a moment, I had forgotten to speak. English was not my native tongue, but I had tried to communicate the best I could.
“These are Springwater Orchids. Would you like to buy some, sir?” I looked up and saw his eyes – blue, like the ocean. I had never seen such blue eyes.
“I’ll buy the whole basket if you show me around the island.” He answered, and smiled.
I couldn’t speak. I could only nod my head in approval. His smile grew wider as he ran off to his friends, apparently to tell them that a local woman was to show him around Pulau Ubin. I stood up as he returned and dusted the sand off my skirt, only to catch him distinctly looking at my legs. He didn’t seem the least bit ashamed that I caught him staring, and only laughed when our eyes met. “Are all Singaporean girls this modest?” He asked, as we walked towards the village.
“The girls are not, but women like myself are, sir–”
“It’s Ryan. Just call me Ryan. And while you may be a woman, you have the beauty and innocence of a young girl. I can see it in your brown eyes.” He smiled again.
I could not respond. I did not know how. My suitors, the men of the village, were never this straightforward when talking to women. He asked me for my name. I answered: ‘Jim Kie, like the orchid.’
“I’ll call you Kie then. It suits you. Beautiful, like your orchids.” Ryan said.
We walked around the village. I brought him to the marketplace, where I would sell my flowers. I showed him the northern part of the seashore where the abandoned mine quarries were. I took him to the cliff near the old German shrine, were the corral reefs were located. He listened as I told him about the place, while occasionally taking photos with his huge camera. As I stood beside him, I noticed that there was a at least a foot between us. He was a huge boy, tall for his age. My head barely even reached his shoulders.
“Pulau Ubin is a wonderful place. But I’d like to see where you grow your flowers.” Ryan asked, his blue eyes looking into mine.
The longer we talked, the more I found myself longing to be closer to him. He smelled of some foreign scent that was not familiar to me. As we walked to my farm, he told me about life in America. How he had just graduated from college and was studying to become a lawyer, like his father. He was smart, and not once did he criticize me about staying unmarried all these years.
“You’ve never been with a man then, Miss Kie? Such a shame. You are a beautiful woman. Any man would be lucky to be with you.” Ryan said so sincerely, as he stared at me. This time, he didn’t look away.
I knew that I was old enough to be his mother, but as I stood next to this American boy, I felt like a young girl again. So when Ryan asked to be invited inside my house, I obliged without question. I served him mangosteen tea and a few local pastries.
As I stood up to serve him tea, he stared shamelessly at me and said: “You have a beautiful body, Miss Kie.”
I was in shock. I did not know how to respond to this huge boy in my kitchen, staring as though he was about to devour me whole. He stood up and looked down on me, but just when I thought he would touch me, he brushed his hair over his eyes and headed toward the door. He said he would return to the beach and politely thanked me for my hospitality, then left. As I closed the door, I had never felt so empty. I lingered in the kitchen, smelling that foreign scent that Ryan carried with him. I realized later on that it was peppermint perfume. I needed to smell it again. I went back to the shore that afternoon, hoping to see him. But Ziqian told me that the American boys had gone into the village to find a local hotel. I returned home, frustrated that I had not stopped him from leaving the house that morning. I should have asked him – forced him – to stay.
That night, I was restless as I lay in bed. I couldn’t understand how a foreigner, a mere boy, could make me feel so powerless. I had lost control over myself. I wanted nothing more than to see him. The sea breeze brought in the smell of orchids from outside my bedroom window, and I held my breath as I thought I detected a faint scent of peppermint. Almost as suddenly as the scent came through air, there was a knock on the door. It was around midnight. I hesitated and took a look in the mirror. It was a hot summer night, and I was wearing only a thin house dress, with nothing underneath. I decided not to think and opened the door.
Ryan looked taller than I remembered, as he towered over the door frame. He walked inside and looked at me, his blue eyes shining against the lamp in my hand.
“Close the door,” he said, emotionless. I obliged.
Right as the door slammed shut, he dragged me to the bed with such forcefulness and hunger that I didn’t have the strength nor the will to resist. Ryan wasted no time. He wore only shorts, but I already saw his huge bulge as soon as I opened the door for him. He took them off immediately as he reached the bed. I had heard stories from village girls who had been with foreigners, but I was not prepared to see Ryan like this. I was still in shock as my eyes adjusted to his nakedness, when he pressed his lips against mine, and flicked his tongue between my teeth. I was in an icy sweat. He pulled away and looked at me, observing me, with an expression I could not understand. I felt so weak. My knees trembled as his eyes were on me.
“Take off your dress,” he said. It was more of a command. And I could do nothing else but obey.
I was a woman of 28 years, but I admit that days of tending in the farm have preserved the firmness of my body, which I realized , as I let my dress fall to the wooden floor, that I had reserved my virginity only for someone like Ryan. He lifted me by my waist and laid me down on the bed, with a forcefulness that comes only with youth. Ryan rolled on top of me, pushing his body against mine, as I felt his rigid manhood force itself between my legs. I had never felt so scared as I did that night, but I welcomed his hardness with such familiarity as though I had known this boy for years. I could feel Ryan’s breath grow faster. He looked at me then, with those blue eyes, and arched his back slowly thrusting himself into me. I cried out, the pain was not easy to bear. He pressed his lips on mine, and held my hand as he thrust himself deeper into me. I cried out again, this time against his lips.
“You are so tiny, like my own little orchid. So beautiful,” Ryan whispered into my ear.
He seemed to notice my discomfort, and pulled out, as I whimpered against his chest. The bed was wet, and the room was filled with the irony scent of blood. I felt a bit self-conscious then, almost ashamed. But Ryan looked at me and said, “I want to be inside you. Please.” Almost begging.
I nodded. I couldn’t speak. He got on top me again, this time with more force than before. He thrust himself all the way inside me, despite my cries. I felt his body shiver as he hit climax, almost the same time I did. Ecstatic and shuddering, I came. The world was in bright flashes, and I knew from that moment, I wanted nothing else in the world but to be with Ryan.
The next few days were the happiest I spent on the island. Ryan and I would walk the seashore together in the mornings, ending with lunch in the village, despite the judging eyes of the residents of Pulau Udin. In the afternoons, he would help me tend to the orchids and cook dinner. At night, we would make love, under the covers listening to the sound of the waves from the shore. It became so natural to us, that we would talk as though we had known each other for years, and the age gap between us slowly melted. I woke up everyday to the smell of his perfume – the smell of peppermint.
After two weeks of passionate sex, the boat arrived to take Ryan and his friends back to the mainland. We made love the night before, with a new kind of passion. We lay in silence after we were done. He looked at me and asked me the question I was waiting to hear: “Come back with me, Kie. Come with me to America. I will make a good life for us there,” He said with pleading blue eyes.
I couldn’t answer. I thought about my father’s orchid farm. My sisters. My life in Pulau Ubin, and the sea that I had loved all my life.
“I will wait for you at the seashore tomorrow. When the boat arrives, I hope you will be there with me,” Ryan said.
I slept that night, resting my head on his chest. He left early in the morning. Neither of us said goodbye. I wept from my bedroom window as I heard the boat leave later that morning. I tried desperately to smell the orchids and the sea, but all that’s left is the strong scent of peppermint.
20 or more years have passed and the orchids still cannot mask the smell of peppermint, though it is fainter now than the day I watched the boat leave for the mainland. While I never saw Ryan again, my love for the island grows stronger each day as I watch son who has now turned into a man ten the orchids, his blue eyes glistening under the hot Singaporean sun.