As this infernal pandemic endures, one is forced to contemplate the most nihilistic of questions. Why was my first kiss in a men’s toilet?
I’m not gay. And I wasn’t experimenting or going through a phase to antagonise intolerant parents. If anything, I was an asexual praying mantis, a lanky bugger who appealed to neither boys nor girls.
My first kiss didn’t happen until I was 11, a respectable, perhaps even indecent, age in conservative Southeast Asia. But I was raised on an East London housing estate that allegedly boasted the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Perhaps that bizarre statistic was apocryphal, but the number of mates going at it like rabbits on the back seat of a battered Ford suggested otherwise.
Still, I was a late bloomer when it came to locking lips with anyone apart from my Auntie Kathy, who kissed everyone on the mouth, which was always an awkward situation, especially for her window cleaner. My first kiss only came about because I was the ‘funny one’, that eternal euphemism for the ‘ugly one’.
My best mate at the time had a square-jawed, pan- Asian look that today would almost certainly get him a travel show. He got the prettiest girl. The prettiest girl’s friend got the ‘funny one’ who kept repeating lyrics from Rocky III in a futile attempt to hide his nervousness.
When she asked to kiss me behind the men’s toilet, I think my response was to shadow box and sing: “It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight!”
Still, we kissed.
She stood outside the men’s toilet beside an open window. I stood inside the men’s toilet beside the blocked urinals. Our lips met through a gap in the window. She smelled of bubble gum. I smelled of stale piss. It was almost poetry.
I can’t remember her name, but I can’t stop thinking about our kiss during the COVID-19 lockdown.
It’s not that a pandemic triggers repressed yearnings for first kisses. The setting, rather than the circumstances, matters more at the moment. We were on a family holiday at an English caravan site at the time and that particular scene—along with many others—keeps me company in this dispiriting period of enforced isolation.
I can’t see the girl’s face, but I can hear the giggling. The playfulness. The fun.
As these lockdown days turn into weeks, fun feels like an endangered concept. Like my first kiss, fun belongs to yesterday. So the mind returns to yesterday, constantly and deliberately. Images of happy, childhood caravan holidays rotate on an internal slide carousel and project themselves into the present.
The snug blanket of nostalgia has never felt so comforting and necessary. Wrapping ourselves in sunny memories keeps out the bleak misery of the current news cycle.
First kisses and old caravans are certainly keeping me going through COVID-19.
‘Old caravans’ is not a euphemism, but a reference I to the actual rectangular, no-frills holiday home of the working-class ang moh family. Singaporeans may not be familiar with the unique features of a cheap caravan holiday in the 1980s. Just A think of an NTUC resort with fewer palm trees, more bingo and no inside toilet.
The first caravan holidays of my childhood actually involved a nocturnal, 50m dash in flip-flops to the bathroom block. Those outdoor toilet seats were so cold they gave startled men a complimentary ‘sack and crack’ service.
The screaming of sleepy souls being separated from their pubic hair still haunts my dreams.
The only thing that working-class men waxed back then was a car. Toilet seats at caravan parks took care of the rest. And now, I want one (a caravan, not a waxed sack and crack).
COVID-19 compels me to book a family caravan holiday in a distant country in a futile attempt to recreate the sepia-tinted snapshots spinning through my nostalgia-addled brain.
I want to return to the happy place that lives only in my head. I know it’s a rose-tinted myth. But the addictive power of nostalgia should not be dismissed as idealised whimsy, especially now, but a useful, perhaps even essential, coping mechanism.
Studies have shown that nostalgia is an instinctive response to distress. Like a sail in a hurricane, it might offer flimsy protection. But it keeps us afloat. We weather the storm. Plus, hunkering down and withdrawing from society goes against the very essence of our being. We’re mammals. Our species interacts, socialises and steals kisses in men’s toilets. But the virus has deprived us of such bare necessities.
So we regress to a time when these simple pleasures were commonplace.
Research shows that nostalgia tackles loneliness by pulling up memories filled with friends, family and mean girls mocking my kissing technique. Across the world right now, nostalgia is one of the few growth industries. Retro romcoms, old episodes of Friends and Seinfeld, popular box sets, classic sports matches or even documentaries about retired sporting icons like Michael Jordan are more popular than ever.
It’s not just about when the Rachel hairdo ruled. Or when sporting greats were kings. It’s what we all were back then. Younger.
We were further away from the other thing, the thing that leaps out at us in hourly news bulletins. Higher tolls. Updated graphs. Doomsday projections. They serve as subconscious reminders of one’s mortality. Death dominates the present.
So the past can isolate us, for a while at least, from the bloody Grim Reaper. We can see ourselves and our loved ones in better times.
Nostalgia is that distinct smell from a lost family recipe, a faded nightshirt from college, a pop song from secondary school or a bawdy joke that your uncle used to tell. Nostalgia is familiarity at a time when something so alien is treating us with contempt. And we need it now.
There’s no harm in wallowing in the sights and sounds of previous, joyful experiences. I certainly am. When this is over, I’m taking the family on a caravan holiday with no expense spared. Our caravan will have an inside toilet.