The worst thing about the dead fish in her bed and the vandalised window, really, is that Rachel isn’t even dating Nick.
Come to Singapore with me for a week, Rachel, she says mutinously in her head, remembering with complete clarity Nick’s pleading when they were having a drink in their favourite bar in New York. It’s Colin and Araminta’s wedding, Rachel, I have to go because I’m his best friend and best man. Don’t leave me to deal with half my family alone, Rachel. Everyone who’s anyone will be there, but there’s nobody else I’ll want to talk to if you don’t come, Rachel - Araminta and Colin and Astrid and Oliver and my mother will all be busy. You’re my best friend, Rachel. All expenses paid, Rachel. Of course nobody will think you’re my girlfriend, Rachel, don’t be ridiculous.
And like an idiot, she came with him, because Nick’s been her best friend for two years and New York would be so much less bearable without his company and he’s spent two years helping her out of jams and driving her to NYU when she runs late and entertaining her when she’s bored and she feels like she owes him sometimes, okay? And after thinking it through - well, an all-expenses paid trip to Singapore? Where Peik Lin lives, and where her mother spent part of her childhood, and where there’s amazing food and beautiful views, according to everyone who’s ever told her about it? It doesn’t seem like that much of a sacrifice.
It really doesn’t, at first. Especially not when they fly first-class and it’s hands-down one of the best experiences she’s ever had, and Nick points out a bunch of things when they land in Changi, which is possibly the most beautiful airport she has ever seen in her life.
Araminta and Colin greet them at Arrivals - Colin towing a gigantic bunch of balloons, Araminta leaping into Nick’s arms to give him a bearhug - and when they turn to Rachel, they both say nice to meet you, and you must be Rachel!, and then, of course, it’s so nice to meet Nick’s girlfriend!
“Of course nobody will think you’re my girlfriend, Rachel, don’t be ridiculous,” Rachel mimics when they’re finally on their way to Colin’s car after first clearing up the misunderstanding. “Who’s being ridiculous now, Nicholas?”
“It’s just Colin and Araminta,” Nick says reassuringly, loading their suitcases into the trunk. “It was a natural mistake. And Araminta jumps to conclusions sometimes. Don’t worry about it.”
So she doesn’t worry about it, especially not after they take her to Newton Food Centre and Nick orders so much food the plates look precariously close to falling off the table. She eats her weight in satay and enjoys every mouthful. Nick puts her up in a suite in Raffles Hotel, where she swears the bed is a thousand thread count, and she has the best sleep in her entire life.
Of course it all goes wrong the very next day when Nick takes her to his grandmother’s home for the engagement party and he ends up having to spend the entire night correcting his family when they give her disparaging looks and basically demand to know why he’s dating an American-born Chinese economics professor.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being any of that and you and I both know it,” Nick says pleadingly after Auntie Felicity, Auntie Alix and Auntie Jacqueline all gang up to confront him. “I just thought it would help if I first clarified that I’m not dating you.”
“None of them believe you, Nick,” says Rachel. “They just think you’re covering it up to gauge their reactions and they’re all showing their disapproval so you do actually dump me.”
“That’s not true,” says Nick. Rachel folds her arms and stares at him, and he wilts a little. “Look, it doesn’t matter, right? Because we’re not dating, and when we go back to New York in five days, it won’t even matter. At all. This was a one-time favour, and I am deeply grateful to you, and I’ll buy you lunch for the next month, but you’ll never have to see my family again and they’ll eventually forget they even thought you were my girlfriend at all.”
Rachel lets him squirm for another minute before finally speaking again. “Next two months, rich boy.”
“From Marumi,” Nick agrees immediately. “You’re the best friend ever.”
Which had been it, and Rachel had been so pleased at the thought of lunches from Marumi for the next two months, and then she’d gone for Araminta’s bachelorette party.
And here she is now. On Samsara Island nearing sunset, in her hotel room, with the words GOLD DIGGING BITCH scrawled in lipstick on her window and a dead fish still bleeding its guts out on her pillow. If she wasn’t already on the verge of crying after hearing Amanda’s subtly cutting comments insinuating she wasn’t good enough to even be breathing the same air as them, she certainly is now.
She almost forgets Astrid is right behind her until she hears her voice. “I’m calling security.”
Rachel’s not sure where it comes from, but she surprises herself when she speaks. “No,” and it sounds colder and stronger than she expected it to. “I’m not making a scene. I’m not giving them what they want.”
Astrid is quiet for a beat, and then she walks closer to Rachel, coming to her side. “I’m sorry,” she says, and she sounds it, her hand resting on Rachel’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “Those girls - they’ve grown up in a world where this is a show of power, not of cowardice.” Astrid lets out a slow breath, shaking her head. “At least let me call the cleaners for you.”
“No,” Rachel repeats. “I’ll do it. I won’t give them what they want, Astrid. I’m better than that. I’m better than them.” She blinks back the tears, and steels her jaw. “Could you just help me get a towel?”
Astrid disappears into the bathroom, but when she returns, her hair is tied into a neat, no-nonsense ponytail and she has two towels in her arms, not one. She hands one of them to Rachel and holds on to the other. “Do you want to start with the window, or the fish?”
Rachel stares. “What are you doing?”
Astrid meets her gaze, unflinching. “You’re not doing this alone, Rachel. I’m better than that, too.”
For a long moment, Rachel doesn’t speak, and Astrid doesn’t look away. Something swells and roars inside Rachel’s chest, something that threatens to spill from her lips, but at the same time, something she just can’t turn into words. It feels like an eternity later that she finally manages to get a grip of herself again. When she speaks, it comes out halting. “Cleaning the window will go faster.”
“Alright,” says Astrid, and they begin their work.
By the time they scrub lipstick off the glass and move the fish into a bucket so they can strip the bed and wring blood off the sheets and toss them in a hamper, the sun has long set. Everyone is out on the beach by the bonfire, dancing and letting loose, but Rachel hefts the bucket out of the hotel with Astrid by her side. They head further away from the shore, an area dimly lit. Astrid requested shovels from the hotel, half an hour ago, and now they pick them up and start digging. The dirt is thankfully easy to carve into, damp from rainfall, and before long they have a hole deep and wide enough for them to pick up the fish and toss it in, packing soil and sand back on top of it. Rachel’s hands are stained and her fingers hurt from where they gripped the handle, but she feels fierce pride and determination welling in her chest. I’m better than that. I’m better than them.
“Rachel,” Astrid says quietly, when they shovel the last clods of earth over the fish. “Amanda, Francesca, Celine - they think that because they’re rich, that they grew up in high society, that they were educated in the best schools in the world - they think that what they did to you means they’re cunning and daring and superior. And I know it isn’t my place to say this, but if it means anything… you are ten times the person that they ever could be. I hope you know that.”
“I know that,” Rachel says, but it comes out as a choked whisper more than anything, because - shit, it dredges up so many things she thought she left in the past, okay? That insecurity and terror and certainty that she’ll never be good enough, and she’s not dating Nick, but what if she were? She can’t imagine that - she can’t imagine actually having arrived in Singapore as Nick’s girlfriend and facing all the stares and sneers and snickers. She doesn’t think she would ever be able to see him the same way, after that - would always be wondering, at the back of her mind, if she was really good enough for him. She can’t imagine living in fear that one day he’d wake up and realise he could do so much better.
And it must come across, or maybe Astrid’s just smart and perceptive and actually caring, because her entire expression softens, and she looks at Rachel with - not pity, but some sort of terrible aching understanding. “Rachel.”
“I know that,” Rachel repeats, louder this time. She tosses her shovel to the sand and sits down beside it, wrapping her arms around her legs, knees to her chin. “I just - it still hurts, you know? When you try so hard, and never do anything but your best, but somehow it’s never good enough?”
To her surprise, Astrid follows, sinking onto the sand beside Rachel, their shoulders just barely brushing. Her gaze trails out to the edge of the horizon, starlight reflecting off the wine-dark sea. “I know,” she murmurs. There’s a brief pause, and then - “Michael’s having an affair.”
It comes out of nowhere, and Astrid’s voice breaks on the last syllable, and the tidal wave of sheer anger and indignation and horror washes over Rachel in an instant. It seems to roar in her ears, pinning her to the ground. “He’s cheating on you?”
Astrid shrugs, and Rachel’s gaze drops to follow Astrid’s fingers, the way they toy absently with the hem of her shirt. “I saw some messages on his phone.” She laughs, short and brittle, and the sound cuts Rachel to the core. “Five years of marriage, and I suppose I just couldn’t give him what he needed.”
“He’s an idiot,” Rachel says flatly, louder than she intends. She sees Astrid’s eyes flare with shock, and maybe this goes against all of the unwritten rules in high society, talking shit about someone in high places who she doesn’t even know, whatever. Rachel doesn’t belong in this world, knows she never will, and honestly, she doesn’t care. This isn’t about money, or legacy, or culture, or anything like that at all - this is about someone she cares about, who has been good to her, and who is hurting, because someone decided to be cruel instead. “He’s an idiot, and he doesn’t deserve you, and if he’s going to sleep with someone else then you’re better off without him. You can do so much better than that, Astrid. You deserve so much better.”
For a moment, Astrid looks genuinely shaken, just sitting there staring at Rachel. She’s still for so long that Rachel begins to worry that she really did say something wrong. Uncertainty creeps up her spine - should she apologise? Is Astrid pissed that Rachel was so blunt? Is she -
“Maybe it was my fault,” Astrid says, and now her tone seems more poignant, more thoughtful than anything. “I married him, and it was my choice, but - I never really loved him, I think. Not really. And maybe he knew. I chose him, but even when I was saying my vows, I was still in love with someone else. And maybe I deserve that.”
“But you never cheated,” Rachel says, with a hint of a question in it. Astrid shakes her head. “I would never have done that. I made a choice, and I stood by it. And over the years, being so far apart, having a child… that love fell away, and I thought I could just live the rest of my life that way.”
And Astrid says this, but Rachel’s not stupid - can hear the lingering regret in Astrid’s voice, the pain, the loss. “You should have married him instead.”
She doesn’t expect Astrid’s laugh to sound quite so bitter. “Oh, Rachel,” she says, and from anyone else Rachel thinks it might be tinged with cynicism or pity, but from Astrid it just sounds exhausted. “I couldn’t.”
Which just makes Rachel think about the snide remarks from Nick’s aunts, the stares from his friends, his cousins’ raised eyebrows and crude jokes. “Because he wasn’t rich?”
“Not exactly.” Astrid turns to look at her, really look at her, and her face is shadowed, barely lit by shimmering moonlight. “I couldn’t, because she didn’t come from a notable family, and she knew nothing about our world, and she would never have been considered good enough.”
Rachel’s world stops.
Here’s the thing:
Before all this, before the dead fish, before the bachelorette party, before Singapore - Rachel didn’t know anybody from Nick’s family.
She didn’t know anybody, except Astrid. Astrid, who had dropped in on Nick’s apartment one evening three months after he and Rachel became friends, intending to surprise him. Astrid, who had been in New York to settle a business deal and chanced upon Nick when the two of them were having a Netflix-and-takeout night, sprawled on Nick’s couch unglamorously stuffing their faces with pizza. Astrid, who Nick had opened the door for and the first thing out of her mouth had been: Good Lord, Auntie Eleanor is fine with you living like this?
Astrid’s the reason why Nick even came clean to her about his roots. If she’s being honest, Astrid’s part of the reason why she agreed to come to Singapore with Nick, because she thought if one of Nick’s cousins was this sweet and kind and down-to-earth then surely the rest of the family couldn’t be too far behind. Astrid stayed in New York for a week and a half to negotiate the deal, and Rachel saw a lot of her, and she never forgot.
They’d sent her off at JFK together, then, and she blames a hangover for even mentioning it to Nick. Your cousin’s so… incredible.
And because he was her best friend, still is, he’d known what she really meant. Had given her a quick grin from the driver’s seat. A real catch, huh? Sorry to disappoint, she’s taken.
And that was a year ago, and back then Rachel had flushed and punched him in the shoulder. Shut up, I didn’t mean it like that!
She’d done a pretty good job of convincing herself that she didn’t, too. Even after the engagement party, even after seeing Astrid again after a year, arm looped through her husband’s - she’d just smiled and not felt a thing.
Before Singapore, she’d only known Astrid a week and a half, after all. And she might be sweet and kind and down-to-earth and her surname might’ve been Leong-Teo but she was still a Young, through and through.
I made my choice -
And Rachel thinks deep down she knew she could never even be an option.
“You were in love with a girl?”
If Astrid can hear her voice tremble, she doesn’t let it show. She just smiles, glancing away. “Not just any girl,” she says softly. “A genius. One of the greatest talents this country has to offer. She was a fashion designer. I met her when I was commissioning a piece for Ah Ma’s seventieth birthday.” Even in the dim light Rachel can see Astrid swallow and it feels like she’s been hit, when she sees the tears beginning to well in Astrid’s eyes. “Her work - I’d never seen anything like it. I still haven’t. She was so bright, so intelligent, and she didn’t care about my name or my parents or my address. She didn’t care about anything except who I was. Just me. I loved her, and she’s long gone from my world, but a part of me always will.”
Rachel’s heart hurts, her chest heavy. Astrid still doesn’t look at her. “We’re a lot alike, you know. Nick and I. For the longest time, even when we were children, our family has been our whole life. We were groomed to take a certain path, and we followed. I thought about running away with her. I almost did - almost left everything behind to be with her. But then I thought about my mother, my aunts, my Ah Ma, and I couldn’t do it. I called it duty. I called it responsibility. I called it love, even. Pretty names all disguising the truth. That I was just a coward.”
“You’re not a coward,” Rachel starts, but Astrid waves it away. “I made a choice. And evidently Nick made a different one. The right one. He’s a far braver man than I could ever be.” Finally, finally she turns back to meet Rachel’s eyes. They shine in the darkness, the gleam of tears evident, but the sincerity in her voice is raw and real. “From that day we first met, in Nick’s apartment in New York - I saw you sitting on his sofa with two boxes of pizza in front of both of you and he greeted me looking so content and I knew, Rachel, I knew. He’s brave, and he made a choice - and he chose well. Everyone would titter about how lucky you are to ‘snag such a good catch’, Rachel, but it’s the complete opposite. He is so lucky to have you, and you will be so happy together, and you both deserve it, because you made that choice. And I am so happy for both of you.”
The world seems to spin around Rachel, the words dying somewhere in her lungs, swirling incoherently in her head. No, she wants to scream, and it seems more important now than it did in front of any of Nick’s other relatives, however much they might have been sneering down at her. No, he’s not the one I want, we’re not together, we’re not dating, I don’t love him -
A particularly loud whoop comes from the direction of the bonfire, and Astrid turns to face it. Putting a watery smile on her face, she gets up and dusts off her pants. “Come on. We should go join them before someone starts whispering.”
Rachel doesn’t get up, still frozen. Astrid glances down at her, reaching one hand out for her. “Hey, what’s wrong? Come on, let’s go.”
She lets herself be helped up, and Astrid starts walking towards the bonfire, sure, graceful steps. Rachel wants to say her name, stop her in her tracks, anything, with a desperation she’s rarely felt in her life, but she just can’t get the words out. She just can’t.
Because Astrid’s right. She’s more like Nick than anyone could imagine. She comes from old money too, is part of a great legacy - everything that she was when they first met, she still is. She’s untouchable, just like Nick.
The girl she loved wasn’t an option. Neither is Rachel.
She sits with Princess Intan at the wedding solely because she’s interested in talking economics with her, and it isn’t until the band begins to play the march that she realises Astrid’s sitting in the row in front of her. She’s with her Ah Ma, looking down the aisle at Colin, standing in front of the altar beside Nick watching as Araminta makes her way towards him. She looks ethereally beautiful and it seems pretty evident that he’s just barely stopping himself from crying. Rachel can’t blame him. He obviously loves Araminta so much, and today he finally gets to marry her, and she can’t think of anything more beautiful than that.
Take my hand, take my whole life too…
Her gaze shifts to Astrid, in front of her. Rachel feels her breath catch, and Nick’s words come back to her in a rush - we go back to New York in five days, it won’t even matter, you’ll never have to see my family again.
It’s only the second time she’s seen Astrid, ever, and both times it’s only been about a week. She has no right to be feeling this way, no real basis, but she thinks about flying home and it’s beginning to ache.
Rachel’s still staring dumbly when Astrid turns back, all of a sudden, and their eyes meet. She freezes, but Astrid just glances back, follows her line of sight to where Nick’s standing, then looks back at Rachel and grins knowingly. She looks so genuinely pleased and happy for them that Rachel thinks her heart might break.
Deep down she knows, really. She has a choice to make, just like Astrid did, those years ago. But what’s the right one? She’s barely sure of the options at all.
She has three more days, and then the choice is made for her.
The post-wedding party at the Gardens by the Bay is explosive, which she really isn’t surprised by. The food is spectacular and the entertainment is top-notch and Rachel isn’t ashamed to say that she spends half the time just soaking it all in. She certainly won’t see this when she’s back in New York.
“Are you going back with me?” Rachel asks when Nick leads her out for a dance so Alistair and Kitty don’t come and bother him. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I just kind of get the feeling that your family really wants you to stay here.”
Nick sighs. “They do. Very much. I’m supposed to take on my father’s role, be the head of the business. It’s what I’ve been groomed for my entire life. But I’m not ready. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I love New York, Rachel. I’ve built a life there that I love and don’t want to leave.” He pauses in the middle of a turn. “I’m considering never coming back.”
Rachel stops dead too. “What? Nick, you can’t. How about your parents? Your Ah Ma?”
“I don’t mean I’d never come and visit,” he corrects, running a hand through his hair. “I just mean I’d hand the reins over to someone else. Astrid, maybe. She’s got a head for business, and she’d do the job well. She’d be a good choice.”
The mention of Astrid takes the breath from Rachel’s lungs again, the gripping ache returning. “Nick,” she says, almost forcing the words out. “Don’t you think you owe it to your family to stay? To do what you were always meant to do?”
“Yes,” Nick says, sounding genuinely torn and regretful. “But Rachel, god, I just can’t help but keep wondering - don’t I owe it to myself not to be miserable for the rest of my life too?”
She thinks about that all day, the day after, and doesn’t take any calls or answer any messages. It’s dark out before she even gets out of bed to have a shower and eat anything.
The second last day of her trip arrives and she calls her mother when she wakes up in the morning. Kerry picks up on the first ring. “Hello, sweetheart.”
“Hi, Mom,” Rachel says. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m perfectly fine, Rachel, you’ve barely been gone a week. I can fend for myself.” Rachel snorts at Kerry’s amused tone. “Why the sudden call? Aren’t you back tomorrow?”
Rachel stays silent, the conflicting emotions roiling in her chest. She can practically hear her mother frown over the line when her voice returns. “Rachel? Did something happen? You’re coming back tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“Mom, I met someone,” she says, the words choking her. “I actually met her a year ago but I finally got to see her again when I came. And she’s beautiful and kind and everything I never dreamed of but now when I look at her - I don’t know what to do.”
Silence. Rachel clutches her cellphone and closes her eyes, trying to quell the desperate fear rising inside her. What if her mother says the same thing the Youngs would have to Astrid? What if the choice is still made for her, after all?
“Who is she?” Kerry says, gentle. “Do I know her?”
“She - her name’s Astrid. She’s Nick’s cousin. She lives here in Singapore, with her family." The words stutter their way past her lips even as Rachel feels her heart stop, Kerry's words making something in her chest swell and roil and bloom. "Mom, aren’t you mad at all? That she’s - “
“That she’s a woman?” Rachel hears her mother sigh from continents away, and oh, Rachel thinks she underestimated her mother, her wonderfully accepting, generous, loving mother who's never begrudged her daughter anything, who's always understood Rachel better than she thinks. “Sweetheart, that’s never mattered. As long as you’re happy. Which is what I want to know. Does she love you back, Rachel?”
“I don’t know,” Rachel replies, and she thinks it might be the worst thing she’s ever had to say.
“Well, then go and find out.”
She makes it sound so simple, and really, the funny thing is that if Astrid doesn’t feel anything for her, then it will be. If Astrid turns her down, it will be easy - she will get on her plane tomorrow and go home to her mother and go on with her life. That’s probably what’s going to happen.
But the other possibility -
“Mom? What if she does?”
Kerry laughs, but it’s not a mean sound, and from across the world, Rachel feels it fill her with a sense of surety. “Then, baobei, you already know what to do.”
She’s pretty fucking sure she doesn’t really know what to do, but that evening, twelve hours before her flight, finds her at Astrid’s front door, waiting for it to open. When it does, Astrid’s standing there and suddenly, Rachel doesn’t think she’s ever been so sure of how she feels.
“Rachel! What are you doing here?” Astrid opens the door wider. “Come in.”
“Is Michael home?” Rachel asks. Astrid glances away, exhaling. “No. And I doubt he will be for a while.”
And Rachel makes up her mind. Makes a choice. Because Astrid might think she and Nick are alike, but it’s beginning to dawn on her that she, Rachel, and Nick are pretty similar too. Nick’s brave, because he wants to be happy, and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone to achieve that, but that includes himself. Astrid chose for duty.
But Rachel thinks she might have a duty to herself too.
“Astrid, I’m supposed to go home tomorrow,” Rachel says. “And I couldn’t go without telling you this first. I need you to know. I’m not dating Nick, Astrid. Everyone thinks so but I’m not. I love him, because he’s my best friend, but not like that. I’m not in love with him. I’m in love with someone who rolled up her sleeves and helped me bury a dead fish on the beach of Samsara Island. She told me I was ten times a better person than the people we were on that island with, and then she turned around and called herself a coward, even though she’s one of the bravest and noblest people I’ve ever met. I love her for it, and I - I think she might be something I want to stay for.”
There. All cards on the table. Rachel lifts her chin and meets Astrid’s eyes, never wavering, even though she’s shaking in her shoes and the next minute is the longest minute of her life.
“You’re in love with me,” Astrid finally says, and the sheer wonder in her voice brings tears to Rachel’s eyes. “You would stay? For me.”
Anything, Rachel thinks. Anything, for you.
Instead, she says: “Michael’s really an idiot,” and steps in closer, closer, resting one palm on Astrid’s cheek. Relishes in the way the light comes back into her eyes, slow but real, and she laughs. “Michael’s an idiot,” she agrees, leans in, and the rest of the world falls away.
Sorry you’re flying home alone.
I kind of saw it coming.
I’m not mad. I mean it.
You deserve her.
Just make her happy.
I’ll be back in New York soon. True love and fairy tale endings aside, there’s a lot of bureaucracy to navigate if I want to build any semblance of a life here.
And there’s still so much to consider.
So I will be back. Just not right now.
Take your time, okay?
Trust me, I intend to.
Thanks for inviting me to Araminta and Colin’s wedding.
I owe you.
Marumi for two months when I get back.
Appreciated, but I’ll let that go if you just do one thing for me.
Just make my cousin happy, okay? Give her the happy ending she deserves?
For once in my life… I think I can be good enough.
I think I can do that.
And I will.