Chapter 22:


Sweet like Honey

At first, I didn’t know how to respond. I could feel Shirley’s soft lips upon mine, and her breath gently gusting against my face. The heat of her cheeks, and the silky strands of her long hair that brushed past my skin.

Then, just like that, the spell was broken, and Shirley withdrew. I continued to stare at her dumbfoundedly, still unsure of what had just occurred.

Shirley giggled. “What’s with that look?”

“No, I…I…” I swallowed and stumbled backward, my face hot. “Did you…have too much to drink or something?”

“I only had one can of beer. I’m still sober.” Shirley sounded annoyed. “Are you really that dense? Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

“Spell what?” My mind was still muddled and I could hardly follow the flow of the conversation. Shirley sighed and buried her face in her hand.

“I like you.”

“Oh. I mean, I kind of got that, but I…” I cleared my throat, uncertain of how to proceed. “I mean, are you really okay with someone like me?”

“Someone like you?” Shirley repeated and laughed. She came closer and buried her face in my chest. “I just told you why I like you, didn’t I? Everything you’ve done for me.”


“I’m not going to make some cliché excuse like you are the only one who knows the ‘real’ me or something, or that you don’t care about me being an idol, and my petty pride couldn’t stand for it, because that’s not true.”

“About that,” I began with a wry smile as I stroked her hair. “Everything about you is real. Whether it’s your private, vulnerable self, or that strong façade you use as an idol. I should know. I wear a mask too, to deceive people into thinking I’m all right, but at some point in time, that cheerful demeanor became as much a part of me as anything else. There’s nothing ‘fake’ about your idol self or public image. They are all aspects of the greater whole that make up you as a person.”

“Thank you. You actually understand that.” Shirley sounded astonished. Then she nuzzled her face in my shirt. “But that’s my point. you understand me more than anyone…including my manager, my fans and even…my roommates. Sis Cheryl, Nina and Howard…they know who I am, and even though they treat me well and do their best to welcome me, it feels like they’re often walking on eggshells around me, as if they are taking into consideration my past. But you accept my present self. The Shirley that isn’t an idol. You interact with me normally, accompany me whenever I’m lonely, and are kind to me, even though I’m no longer an idol.”

She took a deep breath.

“At the same time, it’s not as if you’re completely ignorant of my past as an idol. You encouraged me as well. You keep me company whenever I want to sing, be it karaoke or outside in the open. Remember that time when I was about to give up on singing when I took over from the busker at Mi Tang station? You told me not to stop, and said I should continue singing if I want to. And that you’ll support me. That…made me very happy.”

“I meant it when I said that.”

“I know.” Shirley tightened her embrace. “Like I said, you’re the only one who understands my present self. Even my fans…they claim to love me, but what they’re really obsessed with is my past self as an idol. They can’t accept this aspect of me. They cling onto the image fabricated by my agency, thinking that is everything there is to me. I love singing, and I’m happy that they listen to me, but even so, it’s frustrating when they act like…the idol part of me is the only thing that matters. They don’t respect my private life or give me a sense of space, and they make…some really awkward demands.”

She sighed.

“The agency too. I just couldn’t handle it, and I quit. Even though I wanted to continue singing for so many more years…but I simply couldn’t withstand the pressure and demands. I’m not going to sell my body just for more chances on the stage.”

“I understand.”

“The present Shirley isn’t the same as the idol Shirley, and both of those aren’t the same as the child Shirley. We all grow up and change inevitably. A few of my fans would inevitably dig up my past as a troublemaker when I first started out as an idol in middle school, but then they think I turned over a new leaf and romanticize my reform. My fans all think there’s this long stagnation when I became an idol. That I will remain that idol forever.” She pulled away and rubbed at her eyes. “When my mom died, I woke up. I think I was only in high school then. It was a hard slap from reality. I was young and naïve, and I did everything I could to please the agency…to please my manager at the time, to get as many gigs as possible. Even I didn’t like it, I would have to flirt with men twice my age – old enough to be my grandfather – just to get their approval to perform in a venue, or to obtain their sponsorship. But…after over ten years of pandering to everyone, I just…couldn’t take it anymore. I suppose you can say that I burned out and broke down. I was on the verge of killing myself, actually…but then, I thought, why should I give those bastards the victory? So I quit instead.”

“I know that feeling. I used to listen to my mom all the time, but I guess…I ended up wanting to live my own life and running away. It’s all part of growing up. Feeling insecure. But I don’t think I was ever driven as far as suicide. I’m sorry to hear that. You have it a lot worse than me.”

I felt guilty. Compared to my troubles, Shirley had been through worse. I was in no position to complain. Taking a deep breath, I nodded and reached out to hold her hand.

“That’s not comparable,” Shirley sniffed and smiled. “Everyone has their own problems, and none should be weighed less against another. You did what you could, and so did I.”

“Well, you have me now.” I returned the smile awkwardly. “I mean, as in…whatever you do, I’ll support you. Emotionally. Singing. Uh, whatever you need.”

“Not as a boyfriend?” She teased. Then she shook her head. “I understand. I pushed all this onto you all of a sudden, and you need time to think. I’ll wait for your reply.”

“I’ll tell you that I’m definitely attracted to you,” I declared. “I’m…not sure if it’s love, but I definitely like you a lot. Not simply because you’re beautiful, but…I’ve seen you when you sing, and I can’t help but be drawn to your passion. Your pace. The way you have my back.” I held her hand tighter, refusing to let go. “I…I think it would be great if we can both move forward together from here on.”

“That’s all the answer I need.” Shirley chuckled before throwing her hands around me and giving me a hug. “Thank you.”

“I should be the one thanking you.”

“Stop that, or there will be no end to it.” She snickered. “So we’re together now?”

“I guess so. I’m definitely overjoyed.”

“So am I.” Shirley rested her head on my shoulder. “Take care of me from now on, yeah, Junior?”