A young man who always travels alone goes up the Single Riders lane in Universal Studios Singapore’s roller coaster ride and finds some company. What does this encounter entail for him?
*note: This story first appeared in the New York based gay literary journal Chelsea Station (Issue 4). The author retains full rights to the story. That means no reproducing or publishing this story without the author’s permission. Hope you enjoy reading it!
by Raydon L. Reyes
“Sir, will you be riding alone?” one of the crew manning the Battle Star Galactica rollercoaster ride asks. The call from the platform is enough to rouse Jet out of his half-asleep, half-awake state. He had been staring at the spiralling metal railways for about 15 minutes now.
“Yes I am. That’s why I’m in the Single Riders lane,” he replies, half-wanting to smack the crewperson on the head for making him say it out loud. Isn’t it enough torture that he’s cordoned off from the rest of the riders who came with friends, family, or whoever else was willing to endure waiting in long lines just to experience the best of Universal Studios, Singapore together?
It doesn’t help that he is the only person in the Single Rider lane. He contemplates on the sadist who came up with this default division. Perhaps it’s a prank concocted by the owner who wanted to make single people feel bad about being so. Adding insult to injury. It’s a story as old as the first caveman who wanted to rub loneliness in the face of other cavemen who couldn’t find a mate.
“All right. We’ll just wait for an odd-numbered group that you can join. Please wait for a few moments.”
That’s what you said 15 minutes ago, the 24-year-old thinks to himself. He’s itching to get this ride over with so he can go to the rest of the attractions of the massive amusement park. The Universal Studios brochure clearly states that this is the biggest and most infamous ride (read: plenty of vomit from the weak-kneed) in the park and when it comes to places like this, his strategy is to go in the morning to the major rides first before the crowd starts pouring in the afternoon. That way, he can relax, eat lunch after the rides that would make him feel queasy, and enjoy the minor ones during the rest of the day.
So far, everything in his trip is going according to schedule. He had visited Marina Bay and the Singapore Art Museum the day before, but not without a few hassles. Singapore’s Railroad Transit system overwhelmed him at first. Coming from the Philippines, where going on the train meant getting your ticket from the cashier and saying goodbye to your personal space the moment the train arrives, he didn’t get the automated system with the electronic cards at first. Thankfully, one of the train personnel was there to show him the ropes and he discovered that the train system in the country would be the last thing that would get him lost in the small country. He actually imagined spending half a day just exploring the train routes if only he had the time. But a limited yuppie budget and no one to share travel expenses with allowed him only the tightest of itineraries, so whiling away his time underground will have to wait.
He prays to the highest heavens that the slight drizzle outside doesn’t progress to something heavier so that the crew wouldn’t decide to close the ride temporarily and mess up his plans. But the highest heavens seem to have their answering machine turned on because just a few seconds after the thought occurs to him, the rain starts letting it rip on the island state. Surely enough, the announcement to delay the next roller coaster ride comes minutes later.
“Those standing in line can choose to wait the rain out or to safely get out of the waiting area to enjoy our indoor attractions,” the crewmember shouts.
“Thank god,” sighs a man from the other lane.
“Excuse me?” Jet can’t help asking in surprise and exasperation. How is waiting 30 or more minutes a good thing? But as soon as he realizes his verbal slip aimed at a total stranger, he apologizes. “Sorry.”
A slightly stunned face from a few inches up turns toward him. The young Caucasian face quickly softens after meeting Jet’s brown eyes.
“It’s okay. I understand the irritation. I basically just thanked the rain for ruining other people’s fun.”
“Um, okay. So why…”
“I’m actually waiting for my friends. I’ve been saving this spot in line for almost an hour now and I’d be really pissed off if they didn’t make it in time for the ride.”
“Oh, well that clears it up,” Jet smiles politely, looking up. What a tall man he’s found himself talking to. What is he, 6’1? 6’2? And Jet thought that being 5’9, he was already in the above average in height category. Seeing the world really does change your perspective.
“I’m Noah,” the almost-giant white guy says, reaching out his hand over to the other side of the queue.
He can’t help observing how red Noah’s face is, matching the skin on his ears and chest. It’s the usual look of white guys who are still adjusting to the tropical heat of a country like Singapore. He hopes that the latter doesn’t mind him staring at the area below his neck and just above the open top buttons of his yellow plaid shirt. Hello, collarbones. Jet doesn’t know why but ever since he can remember, it’s the first thing he notices about a guy.
“So where are you from?” Noah asks.
“I’m from the Philippines. You?”
“That explains the profuse sweating.”
Oh god. Three minutes with the guy and I’m already alluding to his glands? This time, it was his own head that Jet wants to smack.
“I mean, it’s cold there, right? You’re probably not used to the heat yet,” Jet blushes, trying to recover.
“Uhh…yeah. I thought the rain would make it better but so far, nothing.” Noah redirects his eyes towards the rollercoaster. In Jet’s mind, Noah is clearly marking the end of the conversation that has turned from casual to weird in the time it takes to say, “Get this island-boy weirdo away from me.”
For some reason, Jet feels that he can’t leave it at that. So against his instincts, he pushes on.
“So these friends of yours…where are they? Why leave you here to man your spot in line by yourself?”
“They went to the locker area. We were carrying our backpacks and I guess they got held up.”
“Backpacks? You mean you were carrying all your things with you? Why didn’t you leave them in your hotel room?”
“That only works if you have a hotel room to leave your things in. We’re staying at this backpacker’s inn in Chinatown. They didn’t have any lockers so we had to take everything with us. It’s a hassle, I know.”
“Ohh, backpacking, eh?”
“Yup, all over Southeast Asia for the next few weeks. This is our first stop.”
Noah then gets into how after three years of working as a tv production assistant at a local station in the state he lives in, he saved enough money to play globetrotters with his friends for a while before he figures out what to do next. He had been working on news for the past years but he wanted to delve more into storytelling. He just doesn’t know what the next step is.
Great. Another young white guy who wants to find himself by backpacking all over the globe. And with the cash to do it too, Jet thought. He swore he’d hate Noah if he weren’t so cute. While Noah is talking, Jet can’t help getting captured by his blue eyes, complemented by his black wavy hair. This is the first time he has talked with someone with actual baby blues. So this is what they look like up close. His own eyes move downward and see the rest of his newfound company. Those arms. Those are nice arms to have. He scans further down to see if the right bumps protrude from the American’s shirt. And sure enough…
“I actually want to be a film director. I’ve done some shorts back in college and a couple during my stint at the station,” Noah continues. “I have some scripts in a box under my bed. I just don’t know what to do with them yet. Hey are you listening to me?”
“What? Yes, of course I am,” Jet lies. He had only been listening to every other word Noah was saying. Stupid hormones. Stupid months of ‘drought’. But his compromised attention span got the gist of the conversation at least. “Good luck to you. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You’re what, 25? 26?”
“So you have a lot of time to plan your steps. That’s what one does in his 20s, right?”
“Hopefully not too much time,” Noah replies. “You wouldn’t believe how many guys our age have already made it in the industry. Just a couple of months ago, we did a segment about a 22-year-old director who won awards in a film festival in Lisbon. Seeing someone else live your dreams doesn’t really boost your self-esteem. You know what I’m saying?”
Jet does know what Noah is saying. He has a dream of his own, after all. But it has nothing to do with career, unlike that of Noah and everybody else he knows. What Jet wants to do is to travel the world. As much as humanly possible, he wants to hike all the mountains he can, ride the rapids, lounge around in major cities in Europe, traverse the rainforests of Africa, visit the famous manmade structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty and all the other cliché locations he sees in movies, everything! What’s more is that he wants to do all of these while he is still young, while he has all the energy and resolve to do so; before things like mortgages and rheumatism and general disenchantment with life start getting in the way. Unfortunately, a Filipino yuppie’s salary is the proverbial hurdle that keeps him from living that dream.
That’s why he resents people like Noah just a little bit. Noah’s part of a group who treats travelling as an in-between thing, something they do to avoid having to deal with life’s pressures. Jet’s dream is just an expensive distraction for them. What’s worse is that it’s an expensive distraction they can afford. Ah, to be a First World citizen. Still, he can’t help feeling a pinch of admiration for the young man for being so passionate about something.
“At least you know what your talent is.” When was the last time Jet even contemplated what his was?
“Thanks,” Noah utters. “How about you? What do you do in life?”
“Get bored at work, mostly,” Jet quips. “Seriously though, I’m a medical representative. I sell medical equipment like X-Ray and Ultrasound machines to hospitals.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“A large part of the whole selling process is bribing doctors with cellphones or tablets or vacations so they’d pick our products over our competitors’. Oh, and I have to be Mr. Smiley all the time even though I have to hand over tickets to some exotic location, which I really really want for myself.”
From the tone of Jet’s voice, Noah deduces that travelling is a big deal for the guy at the other side of the railing. But instead of pointing this out directly, he asks, “So what’s your dream destination?”
After seeing Jet’s face light up at the question, he knows he’s hit the bull’s eye.
“Milford Sound, no question.”
“In New Zealand?”
“That’s the one,” Jet smiles. “It’s this huge lake surrounded by mountains and with rock formations. Just looking at the photos takes my breath away.”
“You won’t be disappointed. Trust me,” Noah says.
“You’ve been there?” Jet exclaims.
“Once. I have a friend who lives in New Zealand. I stayed at his place for a couple of weeks and shot the opening of my short film at Milford Sound. You wouldn’t believe how awesome the sunrise there is.”
“You went there with a film crew?”
“I wish. It was just me, a camcorder, and one other person. Talk about rough, amateur-type filming.”
Noah is quick to catch the change in Jet’s tone. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Are you sure? For a moment, I thought you sounded annoyed.”
“I wasn’t. Don’t worry about it.” Jet tries hard to suppress the green-eyed monster chewing at his insides. He doesn’t want to sound petty, like a child huffing at a kid who got to play with a toy he really wanted. And so he changes the subject.
“You said you went with one other person? Was he your assistant?”
The question seems to catch Noah by surprise. It takes a couple of seconds before he comes up with an answer.
“Well, I guess you can call him my de-facto assistant at the time. He was the only person I could get for free.”
Jet can’t help noticing some hesitation from Noah. Why the sudden mood change when he asked about this so-called de-facto assistant?
“How about you, who are you here with?”
“Ahaha… Isn’t it obvious?” Jet points to the Single Riders Lane sign just above their heads.
“Oh, right,” Noah gives a short laugh. “I forgot.”
“No problem. Maybe you were too busy trying to change the topic?” Jet probes.
“You noticed that, huh?”
“The transition was a little abrupt.”
Noah gives him a half-smile. Not wanting the conversation to break down into uncomfortable silence, Jet offers, “But you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s not like you can do anything with the information,” Noah says. “That guy who was with me in New Zealand, he’s actually the reason why I’m waiting in line by myself.”
“Is he a friend who flaked at the last minute?”
Noah seems to survey Jet briefly before finally revealing, “My ex.”
“Oh. Oh!” No amount of effort can hide Jet’s shock. How the hell did he miss Noah was gay? Has it been that long since he was actively being one himself? Have extended celibacy and work life rusted away what was left of his gaydar that he couldn’t even spot one of his own even when one’s merely inches from where he was standing?
“I didn’t realize…”
“Yeah, I am. I hope that’s not going to be a problem,” Noah says.
“Of course not, I’m actually part of the same club. Though I haven’t been an active member for a while.”
“Really? You could have fooled me,” Noah comments. “Although I guess I should have put two and two together. You’re a bit more nosey and talkative than most straight guys I know.”
Suddenly self-conscious, Jet drops his head at this stranger’s first impression of him.
“I didn’t say it’s a bad thing. At least us talking kept us from getting bored while waiting.”
“Okay. Since you kinda basically gave me permission,” Jet starts, “Rough break-up?”
Surprised once again, and yet somehow refreshed, by Jet’s forthrightness, Noah relents. “You can say that. And just a couple of months ago too. But I hope you don’t mind if we leave it at that for now.”
“Yeah, way too deep for a first conversation, If this were a date, you’d officially have freaked me out by now,” Jet jokes to lighten the mood.
“Oh really? Well, if this were a first date, I’d be freaked out with the 20 questions,” Noah teases back. Their laugh gets drowned out by the crowd behind them, which is rapidly getting impatient with the waiting time. Half an hour has already passed since the announcement to delay the next ride.
“So, Mr. Filmmaker, what’s your favourite film?”
“It really depends on the genre and theme. I can’t just pick one, to be honest.”
“Thanks for the non-answer.”
“Okay, let me ask you this,” Noah says, an intensity suddenly suffused in his voice. “What films do you usually find yourself really responding to? Usually, there’s a theme that you usually resonate with.”
Looking up as he is thinking, Jet comes up with an almost too easy answer. “Travelling. I like travel movies.”
“See? Now we’re going somewhere. Which film do you like best?”
After asking for a short time to think about it, Jet answers, “It’s definitely not Eat, Pray, Love. That movie’s just glorified boyhunting while trying to come off as something profound.”
“Tell me about it,” Noah chuckles.
“If I have to choose just one, it would be Lost and Found in Bangkok.”
“I’ve never heard of that one. Why did you choose it?”
Jet explains that it’s a pink short film he came across with on YouTube. It’s about a guy from New Zealand who goes to Thailand as a tourist and initially becomes culture-shocked by Third-World living. He got homesick at first but as the days go by, he falls in love little by little with the culture. In Bangkok, men who cross-dress can roam the streets without getting a second look. Two men can hold hands and it’s an everyday thing for them. And the guy loves how affectionate the boys in Thailand are.
“There’s this scene where the man decides to test the water by dressing in drag and going downtown. He secretly wishes someone would come and beat him up, just like what happened back in New Zealand, because at least it would snap him out of this trance, this illusion of utopia that he’s found himself in,” Jet narrates. “But nobody does. And the last scene has him sitting on the pavement, looking at the people walking by, and you know he’s found himself. He belongs.”
Noah can’t help staring at Jet, his eyes transfixed on this unexplainable force that seems to have emanated from the Asian boy as the latter tries to convey in words why he liked the film so much.
“I love that idea. That all along, you’ve been home and you’ve known nothing else. But you’ve been lost, lost at home. And you never knew it. Then you go to this place outside without even searching for something, but you find yourself. And everything you know about yourself goes upside down because how can this happen? But it does. And something inside of you just can’t go back to where you were before.”
The crowd is getting noisy and restless, but in Noah’s head, silence reigns. He finds himself caught in a daze, not knowing how to follow up on that kind of answer.
“How about you? What’s your favourite travel film?”
“I was just going to say Motorcycle Diaries because…I like motorcycles.” Noah says lamely, his mental block becoming apparent.
“That’s it? I reveal my deepest thoughts to you and that’s what you give me? Come on, you’re the filmmaker here.”
“It’s what you said, wow. I’m speechless.”
“No, really. It kind of hit a chord in me,” Noah confesses. “I live in a small town in Illinois. I love it there because that’s where I grew up, you know? But ever since I was a kid, I always thought the Western skyline is where I’m meant to be.”
“Yes. I’ve wanted to move there ever since I graduated from college. But this recession makes it hard to do so. Living expenses, and all that. It’s hard enough to break into the industry without worrying if you’re gonna end up on the streets. And I really don’t want to go the cliché waiting-tables-before-making-it route.”
“And yet you still manage to travel with your friends.”
“Running to Southeast Asia is less costly than manning up, I guess,” Noah says, chortling just a bit. “When I’m travelling, I don’t feel like I’m stuck. Maybe someday, when I’m done running.”
“Well, I like your style of cowardice. You get to see places. It can’t be all bad.”
“You’re not doing badly, yourself. But why travel alone?”
Jet then goes into a litany about how travelling just isn’t part of his friends vocabulary right now. His friends are always waiting for the right time, to have more money, to be further along in their careers, or whatever reason they can come up with.
What he keeps from Noah is that they would rather spend their money on clubbing in Malate and Makati, urban gay meccas in their own right, scouting for boys to take home and blindly hoping one of them would stick beyond the night. Jet did that back in college and it never really got him anywhere in terms of helping with his singlehood situation. He doubts five or ten more years of doing the same thing would yield different results. Wasn’t it Einstein or something who said that?
Instead, he decided to pool his measly salary for new sights, local or otherwise. He had hoped that it would help with the loneliness. But maybe he’s just like Noah after all. Maybe travelling is just another form of distraction. Every time he’s in a new place, he feels just as alone as he usually is back home—whether it’s staring at Mayon Volcano or taking his next Facebook profile photo in front of the Giant Buddha in Hong Kong.
How many times has he needed to ask a stranger to take a photo of him in front of a tourist attraction? He has always been at the mercy of other tourists’ camera skills. He usually made up for it by photo-editing the hell out of the shots to come up with something decent.
“But it’s easy,” Noah says, laughing at Jet’s perpetual predicament. “You just follow the rule of thirds to get both you and the sight in the frame. You keep your hands from shaking and just press shoot. How hard can it be?”
“Exactly! But most of the time, boom! Blurry photos with me at the center. I’d seriously hire a photographer to come with me on these trips if I had the money.”
“Wouldn’t a boyfriend be a lot cheaper?”
“Ah, I think I’d have better luck with getting a photographer.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
This comment sets the skin on Jet’s ears on fire. Noah is quick to take this in but says nothing. Pretty soon, they explore other topics like Jet’s real first name (Joselito), Noah wanting to visit Mt. Pinatubo (with Jet offering to be his tour guide), wanting to see the Hollywood sign up close (this time, Noah’s the one who offers to take Jet), among others. Is all this just idle talk? An hour has already passed by since they started talking. They aren’t even aware that the rain had stopped a quarter of an hour ago.
“Hey, I’d love to talk more over dinner. Maybe you can join me and my friends at Chinatown later,” Noah says. “We’re going to try some Sichuan dishes and since I don’t eat spicy food too much, you might see me turn even redder than I am now.”
“Is that even possible?” Jet taunts.
“You wanna find out?”
Before Jet could answer, one of the crew from the ride interjects with the announcement that the ride has reopened.
“Shit. I wonder what happened to those guys.” Noah looks around for his friends, alarmed.
“They haven’t texted you?”
“No. I need to go find them,” Noah says, making his way towards the exit lane. “Come with me.”
“Sir,” the crewmember cuts in. “We have a seat for you.”
Jet finds himself not knowing what to do. Before he came to Singapore, he had already come up with a schedule so that he could get Universal Studios over with before evening came and then check out Orchard Road later at night. Going with Noah now would ruin his itinerary. He wouldn’t have enough time to get in line again for Battlestar Galactica and he doesn’t want to skip the ultimate ride of the amusement park.
Taking a step back, Jet states, “I can’t. I have this itinerary…”
The two seconds that follow seem to be the longest either boy has ever experienced.
“But good luck! It was nice meeting you. Maybe we can find each other later?” Jet proposes.
“Yeah, sure. I’d like that,” Noah says, as if trying to swallow a lump in his throat.
And with that, Jet walks towards the rollercoaster and takes his seat. As the roller coaster begins its slow ascent, he takes one last look at the queue he left behind. He scans for Noah’s yellow plaid shirt, his wavy black hair, his blue eyes. But Noah is already gone. Immediately, Jet feels like a ton of gravel has somehow made its way inside his chest, pulling him down to the ground. How strange. As they approach Battlestar Galactica’s peak, shouldn’t he be feeling a sort of nervousness right now, mixed with excitement, knowing that something awesome is about to happen? And yet, he has already felt that today. He did! He felt it just a few minutes ago when he was talking to Noah. What has he done? He didn’t even get his number for god’s sake. Just as Jet is having this epiphany, the roller coaster begins to drop and shoot through the metal course. Everyone begins to shout in a mix of terror and ecstasy. Well, almost everyone.
After the ride, Jet feels sick to his stomach. But it’s not because the different rules that govern gravity were just tested on his body a while ago. He knows what the reason for that feeling is. As soon as he makes his way out, he runs to the locker room to find Noah. But he isn’t there.
Switching from walking briskly and running, he goes to the other rides nearby but the tall brunette is nowhere insight—not at the entrance of The Mummy Indoor Rollercoaster, the Shrek 4D showing, the Canopy Flyer, or the Jurassic Park Water Adventure. Deflated, and with beads of sweat pouring down his forehead, he sits down on one of the benches to take his breath. Noah is gone. Jet blew it. Fine, Noah is just a stranger in a foreign land, just like he is. Maybe the Am-boy’s on the rebound from his ex, hence the openness. Maybe Jet is feeling the pangs of loneliness in foreign territory. And who really knows if the hour they shared in Battlestar Galactica was going to go anywhere? But damn it, he wants to find out. And yet he realized that too late.
It’s over now. The moment has passed. Noah has moved on. He needs to do that too.
He takes out his map with the Universal Studios itinerary and scans it for a bit. But it doesn’t take long for him to shake his head and throw it into the trash. What the hell, he thought. He’ll just wing it from here on. He proceeds to walk towards the New York section of Universal Studios.
His feet take him to the Transformers 3D ride, his head unconsciously drooping as his eyes trace the brick floor towards ‘New York’. When he looks up, he sees a long line at the entrance of the ride, which probably won’t pose much of a problem. The Single Riders lane is usually empty so he can just go straight up and wait to join another odd-numbered group.
As he comes closer, he eyes the back of the line and sees someone. A tall guy with short wavy hair wearing a yellow plaid shirt. His white face had turned red from the heat. He was talking with two other people, both Caucasians, a guy and a girl. So that is what your heart skipping a beat feels like, Jet will realize later.
“Hey. You found me.”
“Yeah, I did.” Jet tries to catch his breath. Noah, himself, is at a loss for words.
“I couldn’t miss seeing…how red your face would look like after eating the chilli crab in Chinatown later. That is, if you’re still offering that I join you guys.”
Noah’s friends give each other knowing looks.
One of Noah’s friends, the girl, petite and slightly tanned, introduces herself. “Hi, I’m Madeline. And this is my boyfriend, Thomas.” Thomas waves at him from behind Noah. “Why wait till dinner? You’re free to join us now.”
“Yeah. It might be fun to explore this place together,” Noah says.
“You know what, it just might.”
“Thanks for keeping Noah company. We got stuck in line at the locker room. That’s what you get for coming here during peak season,” Madeline says.
“No problem.” The truth is, Jet wants to thank the two for taking so long.
Noah eyes Jet’s point-and-shoot hanging around his neck and suggests, “Here, give me your camera. Let me take your photo in front of Megatron and Bumblebee before we go in.”
Jet smiles at that. At the very least, he’ll get a good primary photo out of this whole thing.
“Wait for us here.” Noah says to his friends.
“Take your time.” Madeline says, and the girl sees the two walk to the robot replicas to take some shots. After they’re done indulging Jet’s quest for a good profile photo (with a few shots of the boys together sneaked in), they head back to the Transformers ride.
“Where are you going?” Noah asks Jet.
“What do you mean?”
“The line’s this way,” Noah points to the right lane. Jet had absentmindedly walked on ahead towards the Single Riders lane.
“Right,” Jet grins. Embarrassed, he switches lanes and the foursome goes inside.
Photo courtesy of Chenyl Eugenio