The first time I saw him, he was naked.

Except for two Speedos. One covering his unmentionables, and another his head.

Only 13, he was already a six-foot Greek God, with a voice like liquid wood. A lifeguard at the school pool, Leroy was tall, dark and handsome, exactly how women on TV said handsome men ought to look.

“You can do it, c’mon!” he shouted encouragingly from the other end of the pool, grinning at 12-year old me.

I don’t need your encouragement. I can swim fine, I thought indignantly before ducking into the water and kicking off. Five feet out, I broke the surface and freestyled across 25 metres of gradually deepening water.

A little over two minutes, I touched tile. Someone dived in over me, splashing my emerging head. A hand appeared, and then a face. Pristine white teeth and dark, black eyes.

“That was good!” Leroy said, that smile sending all kinds of nerves off.

I took his hand, lean and sinewy, and proceeded to hoist myself clumsily up. I almost slipped back into the water. And as though it was his fault that I was an oaf, walked off without a word.

That was my first encounter with Leroy Chan, the first boy who’d break my heart four years later.

*****

I had a principle about dating good-looking guys even when I was just a teenager. Because I was only an average-looking girl, popular boys were out of my league. It was a fact I accepted because it was fair. I wasn’t Teen Princess material, so why should I expect Teen Prince boyfriends?

This principle involved a very sobering sub-principle: that if a good-looking boy did look at me, he actually wanted something other than to ask me out.

Usually, I was the go-to for my pretty friends.

If not, I was the ‘go-through’.

Either way, I was being used.

And I did not like being used.

Still, teenage life was a difficult time. As we all know, teens are not tactful creatures. All I cared about was how cool I was, being friendly with all these popular guys who were boyfriends of my popular friends. I was ‘in’ and that was all that mattered. I knew my time would come when someone would like me for who I was, not how I looked.

Which was why I was an idiot to think that Leroy was such a boy.

*****

When I turned 16, just one more year shy of a Form Five senior, I had dated several guys. 16 is a good age for a Malaysian girl. It is the honeymoon year in school terms. Just after SRP (The First Exam) and a year before SPM, aka The Big Exam. I had aced my SRP and earned my place as being cool AND smart. It was a great time.

By dated, of course I mean hold hands for two weeks while you get groped in the dark and chat on the phone ’til the cows come home or at least until your mom yanks the telephone cable off the wall. There was Andrew, who I sort of outgrew, literally. The last time I saw him in 1993, I was half a head taller. And Zam, who just wasn’t good for me because he’d dropped out of school and very clearly was in for the sex. In Malaysian Islamic law, if you’re caught having sex with a Muslim, you’d have to get married or pay $500. I didn’t have $500 nor did I want to get married just for the sex, so I declined less than politely and we broke up.

As for Leroy, we saw each other very rarely. For a year after the swim meet, we’d become church friends. He was the youth club president and I was a youth club member. It was a cordial acquaintance and he turned out to be quite a cool person, not at all the jerk I thought all good-looking guys were. His sister Joanne and my sister Eunice became best friends but fell out after a couple of years for some reason. And then we simply stopped going to church and I focused on my exams. We’d simply lost touch.

*****

The next time I saw Leroy was four years after the swim meet. I was 16, and had agreed to go with my friend Corinna to a group date because she was nervous about meeting someone named David and needed moral support. It was for lunch, after school, and we were going for ice cream or something at the spanking new KFC in town.

When we walked into the post-lunch almost-empty restaurant, on a table in the middle of the floor were four people. A chubby guy who was feeding his face. Another girl still in uniform with her back to us, holding hands with some guy still in uniform, staring romantically into each other’s eyes.

And Leroy Chan.

Wearing a loud floral shirt. And dark green school pants. Eating a banana split.

He looks up, sees me and his mouth curves into a languid grin, like the Cheshire cat welcoming its prey.

“Well oh my God if it isn’t Jennifer Tai.”

There’s that deep timbre of a voice again. I am awestruck. Is it possible but has he become even more good-looking? How fair is that?

I tug consciously on the straps of my turquoise school uniform, regretting the two noodles I had for recess.

“Do you KNOW him?” Corinna whispers, clearly shocked, her eyes never leaving the chubby boy, who takes a minute from the biggest bowl of ice cream in the world, and gives me a cursory nod. The girl sitting next to him turns around. It is Joanne. Her boyfriend is Victor, an old friend from church.

“Wow. Long time no see, guys,” I say meekly, sitting down on my designated seat in between Leroy and Victor. ”

Corinna has clearly forgotten about the coincidence as she snuggles, giggling, into the-boy-who-must-be-David’s ready arm. She wipes chocolate from his smudged mouth affectionately. I smile at nobody.

Leroy playfully bumps his shoulders at me. Joanne gives me an uncomfortable look. She wonders if I’m going to ask why she’s not been visiting Eunice. I do the right thing and keep quiet.

“So how have you been? Fancy seeing you here today.”

Leroy is flirting with me. I am awkwardly flattered, and suddenly aware that I am not exactly looking my best.

“Okaylah. How are you guys? How’s church?” I ask politely.

We talk about old friends and make plans for the weekend. Suddenly, I am one of them. And then I realise that I may be set up. Am I to be Leroy’s girlfriend in this little group threesome? Oh Shit. Me.

It is when I reach home that day that I am able to digest the afternoon. I mention to Eunice that I’d been hanging out with Joanne Chan, and she waves her off.

“She’s not my friend anymore,” she says casually. I can see it hurts her but she is also not someone who dwells on her feelings.

“She’s like all boy-crazy and everything. I don’t need her.”

“Well, we’re sort of hanging out this weekend. Going to see a movie.”

“You and Joanne Chan? Why?”

“Not me and Joanne Chan. Me and her brother Leroy, my friend Corinna and this new guy called David. Joanne and Victor. Remember Victor Aw?”

“No?” Eunice is being mean.

“Well, we‘re going out.”

“None of my business since I never get to go anywhere.” She goes out of the room and slams the door.

The phone rings. It stops.

“Fer! Phone!” my mother yells from the study. We pass each other and she smiles, “It’s a boy. But I don’t recognise the voice?”

I shrug.

I pick up the phone. It is Leroy. Holy crap. Corinna must’ve given him my number.

We talk about the afternoon and this weekend, and nothing important. I try to sound casual and nonchalant, a trick I thought I had down pat but it is hard to breathe thinking that Leroy Chan is actually talking to me on the phone VOLUNTARILY. Eunice comes in and stares at me, crossing her arms, rolling her eyes. I shoo her away and spend the next 20 minutes trying to sound uninterested.

In a few hours, I will be lying in bed, unable to sleep. I will be staring at my asbestos ceiling and listening to the loud whir of our floor fan, grinning into the darkness.

If this is a dream, don’t let it end.

(to be continued)

This tale can also be found at A Tale A Day.