December 9, 2022


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Book Excerpt: The Best Asian Short Stories – 2020 (Edited by Zafar Anjum)

6 min read

An exclusive excerpt from Phong Huynh‘s short story, As Legal as We are published in The Best Asian Short Stories- 2020 (Edited by Zafar Anjum), published by Kitaab in 2020.

As Legal as We are by Phong Huynh

Ajay takes a long puff. The white veils swirl in malleable waves in the bong, making a bubbling sound as the smoke rips through the water. He holds his breath. He can feel his neurons lit up like wildfire. His scalp seemingly shrinks and reels from the cold, tickling refreshing sensation. Then he lets it all out. The exhaled vapour eclipses his dilated pupils, which are staring vacantly at the ever-receding ceiling. He neatly puts the bong and what’s left of the meth into an IKEA zip lock bag. He seals it and places it in the cistern in the bathroom. It’s the wee hours on a Saturday morning. At other times, Ajay is a brown expat from Chennai in his thirties, one of the five partners at the law firm Bartleby, Lee & Tan in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District. He is also a gay man. Most people know this. But on Saturday mornings, only on Saturday mornings, he is also a junkie. No one has a clue.

Ajay cleans the lips of his wine glasses till they are free of any fingerprints. The gay society in Singapore is like the animal kingdom, and tonight the royalty is descending on Ajay’s dinner party: beautiful, chiselled, six-packed, wealthy gay men, holding high-profile jobs in multinational corporations or being some sort of hipster yogi, barista, mixologist, watchmaker, or a policeman. Aiden is a policeman. Ajay is both fond and terrified of him, not sure which causes the other.

Ajay has stocked up ample wine, fifteen bottles of red and six bottles of white to be exact. The reds come with a vintage ominous label “19 Crimes.” The whites are the opposite, carrying a modern tongue-in-cheek label “Quirky Birds.” Ajay has curated the menu of alcohol to make sure everybody will be adequately intoxicated for conversations but not too drunk to last the night. That means no hard liquor. He gleams at the bottles of Monkey Shoulders on the shelf.

The abundant wine greases the conversations of a dozen gay men in the room: whether a banana taped on a wall is art, whether 377A will be repealed in their lifetime, whether the latest reincarnation of the keto diet is a farce, and so on. Eugene, an Instagram famous gay celebrity, is meanwhile dispensing skincare advice to Ajay on the sofa. Eugene is in his fifties though he looks like a twink with his bouncy, radiant skin, not unlike that of new-born babies. Ajay props his head up with his one hand while sipping the last of his 19 Crimes and savouring the panoramic sight of Singapore’s gay royalty in his living room. He cannot bring himself to comprehend a ten-step skin care regimen any more than he can explain the elaborate arrangements in a Chinese funeral procession. Ajay thinks about the cistern.

“And that’s the last step. Voila. Baby skin. Youth for eternity! Simple, right?” Eugene snaps his fingers.

“Excuse me, dear. I am going to get a refill. Tell me more about the toner when I am back!” Ajay leaves the sofa.

The living room in Ajay’s condominium apartment is just spacious enough for a party of a dozen, but tonight, getting from one end to the other feels like a trek across the Himalayas. Each of these men is a treacherous mountain 190 PHONG HUYNH pass: boastful Luke, conspicuous Andrew, snobbish Ken, and nerdy Seng. All Ajay tries to do is get closer to Aiden. He is not sure if it is Aiden or the thrill of danger that is pulling him in. Aiden, a five feet tall, muscular born and bred Singaporean Chinese, has been in the police force for a month now. He met Ajay at Eugene’s party last Christmas, and they have been hitting it off from the get-go, sharing the love of reading, bubble tea, and beautiful men.

“Aiden, are you enjoying yourself?” Ajay puts his arm across Aiden’s shoulder, balancing the wine glass with the other.

“You have been reading Jonathan Safran Foer?” Aiden stares at the bookshelf.

“Everything is Illuminated is, well, illuminating!” Ajay leans further towards Aiden.

Aiden is whom one will describe as nerdy cute: a thirty-something wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses and combed-back spiky hair. He doesn’t speak much, but his reticence pulls people towards him. His big black eyes under the chandelier reflect the version of Ajay that he keenly wants Aiden to see beyond: a pudgy brown man that clambers but will never make it to the top of the gay kingdom.

“You want some more 19 Crimes?” Ajay chuckles.

“I actually need the bathroom.” Ajay thinks of the cistern.

Damn it, not now. Where are the pills? His heart rocks against his chest, sending the tremor through to his hands. You will be such a pity piece if you break down into tears. Not now. Not in front of these queens. You gotta pull through. Dollops of sweat from his palm smudge his half empty wine glass.

His breath quickens. Ajay puts the glass down on the table and tumbles to the restroom, which feels like another trek across the Himalayas. There is an art to sneaking out and sneaking in that Ajay knows too well from his past moonlit trysts with boys in the vicinity. Right now, he is using that very skill to escape, unseen and unheard, tiptoeing on the edges that are his friends’ lines of sight.

Closing the door behind, Ajay props himself up against the sink with his quivering hands. He sees his face in the wall-sized mirror melt into a muddle of iridescent fluid shapes, like the swirling rainbows on soap bubbles. You loser! You can’t go through a party without a big fuck up like this? Who will date a social handicap like you? The little voices bounce back and forth against the inside of his skull. He is all too familiar with them, the unforgiving ones. They told him off when his Data Science class result was “good” but not “meritorious.” They told him off when his performance rating at work last year was “exceeds some, but not all, expectations.” They told him off after the Singapore Qualitative Research Conference cocktail reception where he spoke to fewer than five people in the whole boozy evening. They told him off when Dayton did not give him a goodbye kiss after their dinner in a moving capsule on Singapore Flyer. They told him off when he failed to tell his mom how much he loved and hated her at the same time. They told him off all the time. The unforgiving voices slop around within the walls of his head, the recalcitrant neurons which refuse to stay down.

About the Book

“From the mountains of Uttrakhand in India to the Rocky Mountain in Canada, the stories in this volume represent the multitude of Asian voices that capture the wishes, aspirations, dreams, and conflicts of people inhabiting a vast region of our planet. While some contributions deal with the themes of migration, pandemics, and climate change, others give us a peek into the inner workings of the human heart through the prism of these well-wrought stories. This volume is the expression of a community, “a community of Asian writing that stands on its own two – no, its own million – feet!”

as novelist and critic Tabish Khair says in his ‘Foreword’.