COVID Companions is a series of creative pieces featuring snippets of life during COVID-19, with a special focus on the other individuals or creatures who are keeping us company during quarantine, lockdown, ‘circuit breaker’, or whatever your equivalent might be.
Description/context: Upon return to Singapore on April 30th 2020, we [xiao ting and jill] found ourselves quarantined in Swissotel the Stamford on the same day, 26 floors apart. Instagram algorithms facilitated our mutual awareness of each other, and notified us of our shared location.
The rest fizzed into existence, into this exchange buoyed by literal and affective bubbles. We met for the first time in the lobby after being released from the Stay Hotel Notice, taking care to be at least 1 metre apart. Here is our conversation.
A pop —
I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the pop comes inhalation, one two, s lo w — an ‘O’ swivelling through iridescent membrane tension stretching. A whistle and the wind blows desiccating, rupturing these perfect spheres right at the tip of this straw. This straw balancing between my thumb and forefinger. I come into this facility, this five-star hotel, hungry for solitude. It doesn’t matter voluntary or otherwise. So long as it does not require contact with another. A privilege, a re-realisation that I occupy one of the two Singapores, one in which I am taken care of by the state. Watched. It is for my own good, and the good of everyone, says the document lying on the bedside table by Singapore Tourism Board. I agree, turn it over in my mind, feel uncomfortable all the same.
Everyone is too close and I need to breathe. My phone buzzes incessantly, sometimes from someone I know, more often from the ICA, seeking reassurance that I am still here, in Room 1866. An exhalation, bulbous excrement. And yet, there it is, a person distant yet resonant enough for me to withstand communication with. There you are, Jill. A pop blooming glee, on my(your)own terms. It doesn’t matter whether these bubbles will reach you. I created them thinking of you, willing them to be sent and received by you. There is no shame in the failure of transmission. I draw comfort and take pride in its attempt, our attempt. I withdraw from the balcony, phone in hand eager for documentation, concretisation. Proof of this attempt. You reply and there, the receipt I covet. Our privacy for all on Instagram to witness.
Days later I look to my right to see that the wall had retained a stain — no, not a stain. A record of having been. The bubble forever in stasis, imprinted on white pristine wall. A letter wilfully refusing to be sent. Jill tells me she receives it all the same. All the same. It stays with me, with the room, to be inhabited by the next person in quarantine.
Ad hoc bubble solution made of hotel hand soap—not quite viscous or hardy enough. I make a hole with my fingers and form a soapy film, anyway. I saw a double rainbow the day before I left my other home to fly across the world, and wondered when I would next see these colours. But here they are reflected in the soap surface. A forecast of unlikeliness, a jiggle of curiosity. Will it make what it has the potential to become? I try: a tremble, then
Surface tension breaks into a hole. An aborted bubble ):
A few weeks back on the other side of the world I heard birds chirping near my window while I was working. My first thought was to play music to block out the sound of what lay outside; the sound of anything outside of myself felt unbearable in that moment. The song I chose to play before I stopped myself and forced myself to hear the birds was “Nobody” by Mitski.
Now I am here in this strange sealed existence. Somehow, in this same “facility” is someone I want to send bubble missives to. Solidarity in isolation? Distant/ distanced companionship? Being in common? Alas you, almost-stranger, future friend, are in a room facing the other side, and floors apart. There is impossibility, too, of transmission. But in times like this, why wouldn’t I try?
I make a bubble at last, by inelegantly shaking my fist (I don’t have implements, for shame, ill-prepared for this correspondence that has sprouted). The bubble floats, floats, then ruptures. Another bubble, two. One floats into the balcony and comes right back to me but I don’t want it. I want it to reach someone else! But xiao ting does not get the bubble, only a digital trace on Instagram.
The day before I got sealed in this hotel, I watched some birds fly into the airport departure hall. Nary an inkling they were trapped, they settled, hopped in play and stopped to gather for a snack around a teen boy who was feeding them tiny crumbs.
People keep telling me to “enjoy the staycation” in “wah Swissotel leh!”. And to be sure this was very much a bubble existence and I enjoyed the orbed desserts they left hanging on my door.
I have been getting forwarded these articles and images of how migrant workers are being moved onto luxury cruises and resorts for quarantine. “Enjoy the staycation.” From my balcony overlooking Marina Bay Sands and all this hyperbuilding that now marks Singapore’s skyline, I can see two of the cruise ships used for the quarantine. Indentured labor on ships? I was stilled, chilled, and then the doorbell rang and I went to see what orbed dessert had been left for me that day. I wanted to blow more bubbles to you today but it felt too close to a commentary of where we are now.
Teo Xiao Ting plays with words and bubbles. Her current preoccupations surround different forms of book-making and publishing as manifestations of the viscera. Her practice, at this point, integrates various forms of intimacies and daily life through responding and/or collaborating to the arts in writing. For more information about this human, visit https://txting.space
Jill J. Tan has co-owned a pet that is a 2 litre bottle of bubble solution named Fubbles. She is a Singaporean writer, artist, and PhD student of anthropology at Yale committed to collaborative practice, co-theorization, and multimodal exploration through games, interactive performance, and poetics. She currently works on projects on death/dying, children’s dance practice, socially-engaged art, and parasitism and mutualism. Find her at jilljtan.com.