From Home Leave, Chapter 11: Safety

Singapore’s torrential downpours make the thunderstorms Leah and Sophie loved in Atlanta look like light rain. They come out of nowhere, clouds gathering suddenly, inexplicably, with the fury of a borderline personality. From a bright blue sky outside and intense, unremitting sunlight, the room is abruptly cast in deep shadow, and rain descends with the finality of a stage curtain, the angry pounding distracting Leah from Mandarin class and, if lightning is present, calling a quick end to Sophie’s soccer practice.

Shanghai’s storms had been moody, whole-day, drizzly affairs that occasionally gathered enough momentum to actually rain, at which point garbage flowed freely in the streets. Ponchos blossomed in every color on the city’s millions of bike riders, and the dirt of construction sites turned to sludge. Even the brightest of Shanghai’s blue fall days had been compromised by a thin line of haze, like the giveaway bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic. Nature, throughout the city, had been subdued and beaten to an unrecognizable pulp. The Suzhou Creek had run black and reeked blocks before you arrived. The leaves of plane trees in the French Concession were gray with dust.

Singapore, by contrast, is verdant everywhere the Kriegsteins look, even in the city center. Fuchsia bougainvillea tumbles from pedestrian crossovers, sidewalks smell of the lemony gardenia trees towering above, and the sprawling grounds of their colonial villa boast papaya, mango, and jackfruit trees.

Shanghai’s dirty air had caught in their throats and given them perpetual colds. In Singapore the air is warm and moist, rich with the oxygen of the island’s exhaling trees. Singapore is the safest city in the world, they are told, over and over, by the real estate agent, when they look at apartments, before settling on the villa; by the school counselor, when they first check out the American school; and by Chris’s colleague, who takes them all out to dinner with his two daughters, who are Sophie’s and Leah’s ages.

But black spitting cobras are also endemic to Singapore, which was an island covered in virgin rainforest less than two hundred years ago. At night, in the bedrooms of their colonial villa, the Kriegsteins hear the remains of the jungle, shouting, creaking, arguing with itself. By day, the sounds disappear, aside from the clicking of a gecko in the kitchen and the grumble of thunder outside.