Man at His Best

Fiction: What Are You, Eighteen?

Of growing up and getting down.

BY Koh Tsin Yen | Jan 5, 2017 | Sex & Relationships

I didn't have blue and purple bits in my hair at eighteen, but if that’s the right age then perhaps I’m 18 and lost and there’s a guitar without strings hanging on a wall, the way it’s hanging now on my brother’s wall. He’s sixteen; they’re growing up faster these days; I took a long time getting to 18 it was like 16.

The carpet-seller in Cappadocia, Mustapha (named for Ataturk, not the Prophet), guessed 26 because Asians always look younger, thought my sister my age. Look at the patterns on the kilim, he said; and remember, kilims are woven, carpets are knotted, and they are all works of art: blue eyes, to ward o† evil; hands-on-hips (women with their fists on their hips), asking something from the gods.

Seventeen was a first kiss stolen behind my house, every 13-year-old’s fantasy, as unpractised, as sweet. I’d rather be 17 but I’m 40 and there’s a mortgage, half a car, three kids and their dog and a bucket of broken words waiting for me back home.

If home is where you dream then I’m 33 in tee shirt and jeans and horn-rimmed glasses reading Merleau-Ponty in the dim light of the Hungarian Café on Amsterdam Avenue, mostly to show o†, partly to enjoy the irony of Merleau-Ponty on Montaigne: is there anything as certain, resolute, disdainful, contemplative, solemn, and serious as an ass?

I don’t want to be an ass; I’m six years old and back in Los Angeles delighting in the monstrosity of the bougainvillea; four in Istanbul just this summer eating Turkish ice-cream as if for the first time; 20 and smuggling bootleg Moroccan wine back to the wine-drowned city of Oxford. I’m 80 and there’s Charles Baudelaire in a back pocket and bottles of Tokay hidden in the backpack still; I’m 22 and disillusioned with intoxication and pretending an intellectual austerity in the Rad Cam when a firework explodes through the upper window, showy, unexpected, and to be gloried in.

Twenty-three and going home the long way round through John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin and Anne Carson and Frank O’Hara; the long way round through England and New York and a two-day bus ride from Rio to Buenos Aires, flight to Lima, night in the airport Dunkin Donuts, plane to New York, frantic night repacking in Manhattan and another 24 hours flying to the other face of the world across the Pacific—what’s home by now and what time could it possibly be? I’m 19 and drunk in the New College garden, looking hands-on-hips in the libraries and wine bottles for something that will end the looking-for; 22 and on the steps of Low Plaza in Columbia still drunk, no less afraid and no less exhilarated; twentythree and sorting out my first paycheck, first credit card in Singapore, first gift (repayment? allowance? consideration?) of money, gratitude and guilt to my parents, first anticipation of a future with fewer poems and less wine.

The American girls were 22 and 23 and timeless as Americans go, my sister was 21 and all ages, and we were all accidental hikers together in the Red Valley, Cappadocia, losing the path to stumble across the winery, absurdly delighted by the colours of the weeds, looking to find the road before sunset. Is it time to fess up? I’m 24 and I should know better, but I’m still here, tired, thirsty, layered in dust and sunlight, lost in the looking-for.

Edited by Amanda Lee Koe. What Are You, Eighteen? was first published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.