“Let’s try this today” Mom suggested. “Let’s try leave our phones at home. All of us.”
Ok. This wasn’t usual. We normally didn’t do this sort of thing as a family. We were normal and had normal family rituals. We put our shoes on the shoe rack nice and neat. We fed the dog twice a day. We rid the air-con vents of dust every Thursday. These were our known family rituals. Leaving our phones at home? No way. I was bringing it.
The four of us sat in silence as we drove out into the street. The family car was small but cosy, bought 5 years ago when the COE prices dipped slightly. It was strange that day, mom and dad gave no warning of a new car but suddenly just drove in in a grey Honda Accord. It had beige leather seats and a grayish themed interior. It had the smell of processed leather and forged steel. Well, I couldn’t be sure of the latter, who actually notices such smells on a regular basis anyway? It had to be though, new things all smelled like that. You just knew it intuitively.
The car now possessed no such smells. After years of continual usage, it smelled very much like ourselves. It had no noticeable smell, of course. It was like how one can never quite smell his own body odour due to lifelong exposure to it. We certainly did have a smell, just not the sort of smell we noticed anymore. If someone stepped into our car though, he would notice a different smell. Likewise if we ventured into a different car driven by a different family. This family would have different routines, lives, perfume, cologne, aftershave, shampoo. The car would smell like something else altogether. We’d notice it immediately. But when we are conditioned to ourselves, we don’t notice anymore.
I sat there thinking of that for a while, as the car narrowly lost out to a red light. A strange thought, but not an inconceivable one. I observed my brother looking out the other window. His hands looked awkwardly long. Like they were almost freakishly long. I wouldn’t say just long but lacking. Long and lacking. That’s right, his hands were supposed to be holding his phone. It was a habit that was brutally broken today. He couldn’t look through a small interactive screen so he had to gaze out at the real world, boring as that sounds. A red Ferrari passed by in the opposite direction. It was moving slower than I thought it would. I imagine my brother thinking of this Ferrari, weighing his chances of owning one and being successful in life. The order of the two probably didn’t matter so much to him. He was still a kid.
My thoughts raced as I, too, realized that there was nothing for me to do really. I would have made a few connections by now. The stray text message, the browsing and judging of uploaded pictures, reading up on peoples thoughts. People far away who didn’t care, but the fact that they were people…it was a heartening thought. This was how we were all connected nowadays, by thin yet tangible threads. My hands were empty now like a puppet master who had his strings cut loose. The puppet had been left at home, unable to come for the show.
My parents sat in the front seats. My mother drove today, while my father just looked straight ahead. He probably wore the most neutral expression in all of human history. An amber light this time, the car hurriedly raced past it as kids race to the last chair when the music stops. My mother usually drove. Don’t ask me why, in most families the father drives. At least that’s what I’ve observed from years of seeing my friends being picked up by parents. Dads usually drove, but my dad was always a strong believer that women could drive better. He always insisted that he had traumatic experiences driving in his youth. The truth was, as he revealed to me while we were in an overseas sauna: “I’m just too lazy to drive son. Mom doesn’t know this but freedom and gender differences is the last thing I care about. I just want to rest.” I just want to rest. I turned that phrase over and over in my head. What does it mean for a father to say that he “just wants to rest”? Strange thoughts. Judging by his posture as he sat in front, he does indeed look like he needs a rest.
What kind of rule was this anyway? to leave your phone at home while we went out as a family? Did other families do this? My close friends, they had families. Yes. But did their families leave their phones at home when they went on their family gatherings? I wouldn’t know for sure, but something told me that they didn’t indulge in such strange tendencies. Who was my mom to suddenly impose such a strange rule, to leave our phones at home? Did she realize she may be starting a new habit, a horribly inconvenient and strange new family ritual? Bad things could happen. The world could drastically change without us never knowing of it until we got home and discovered this change on our phones. There were other ways to read about world changes. We could gauge the expressions of the families around us. Read the change in the air. Watch a public television. Not that there were many of those.
The car entered the expressway through a slip road.
My mind traced back to 9/11, that was already more than ten years ago. I was still in primary school and my brother just born. I sat at home preparing for Wednesday. It was getting late and i should have been sleeping but I stayed up for those few extra minutes. The house was dim and my parents sat huddled in front of the television watching the 9 pm Chinese drama. the house phone rings, and my father lazily walks over to pick up the phone. I remember vividly, it was three rings. I could not remember the color of my school bag or my school principles first name, but I remembered: three rings. Promptly, he switched channels, and my mother called me over. We sat, the three of us, huddled together and watching the scenes of terror. Events that were happening a world away were mercifully kept separate from our lives by the glass of our TV screen.
“So how was everyone’s day?” My mom attempted to break the silence while keeping one eye on the road. Not a bad attempt, but with more experience in awkward phone-less situations she could improve a grade or two. “Ok lor. You know. School, homework, teachers. There’s nothing more everyday.” My brother seemed rude or callous in his remarks, but he did have a point. Everyday we live our lives, without anything significant to share around. We don’t think about this and let days, months, even years pass by. we believe its great to keep up these routines, but simple questions like how was your day shine a light on how oppressively boring it is, these lives we lead. “Mine was alright.” It was alright. “We had some presentations, ate Quiz Nos for lunch, had a great time filing all my reports too.” I am officially the most boring twenty something on earth. “What’s Quiz Nos?” “It’s that subway thing you know, the sandwich fast food thing.” “Oh…” My mom didn’t seem very interested in what Quiz Nos was, nor did she seem very interested in what our lives were like today. I couldn’t blame her. They were so ordinary. A teenager studies, a grown up goes to work. A teenager longs for the freedom of work life and I, the grown up (Yeah right) longs to be dependent and restrained like a teenager. But in the end there is routine. It sticks to us like how small barnacles stick to the back of blue whales.
We seemed to have exhausted all possible conversation topics on the first attempt. My dad turned on the radio. It was playing some Jay Chou song about a girls hair that resembled snow. I remember the music video for this particular hit. Jay Chou sits in the deep snow and sings while a love story unravels in olden China. Speaking of China and snow, I realized I had seen neither for the longest time now. The last time our family traveled to China was to visit our ancestral village. It was strange. It was nothing like the lives we lived back here. The walls were made with stones and the toilets all had a generous open air concept. We only visited the toilets in the main building that were slightly more private in nature. We had a refreshing steamboat on the last night in the bitter cold. I remember how I felt sitting around the group of old villagers I wouldn’t believe were related to us. Their smiles revealed golden teeth and their wrinkles deepened with every expression. It was a comfortable feeling midst the cold because part of me knew, if there was any place in this world I could feel comfortable about, it was this place. My justification of comfort was my comfort. Such fulfillment was innate and did not need any origins.
My thoughts had gone a few places by now, unbeknownst to the rest of the car. Again, I wondered what my brother was thinking of, staring out of the passenger side so intently. I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. It was tough being a teenager, and tougher without your good ol’ mobile handheld device. He might be planning to leave home, just pack all the essentials one day and run off. What would I pack though, if I really wanted to make a break from home? I guess I’d need to steal as Much money as I can. Passport, IC, and a spare phone. I would change my number in preparation too. I would keep some physical pictures in case technology failed me. Pictures of my loved ones and to remind me always what I was running away from. These would be the essentials. Of course that wasn’t all I’d bring along. I’d pack one set of formal wear and sportswear, alongside the clothes that were already on me. I’d wear my best dress shoes and bring along one sport shoe. I had no time for vague in-betweens and sloppy fashion statements. I thought a little longer. Heck, that’s probably all there is to it. I’d write a letter maybe, explaining to my folks that I needed some time to discover myself and that I would survive alright. I’d try find a part time job, get into my own routine again. That sort of idealistic stuff any runaway hopes for; to sustain a living all by himself out there. That’s what I’d do, definitely. So brother, if you’re looking to run away, you’re free to consult me. It can be our little secret. If mom and dad found you gone one day I’d play it dumb. I’ll pretend to search high and low for you. I’d turn every stone except the precise stone you were under. It would be a strange brotherly moment. I shook my head in apprehension just thinking of it. Well, that’s if he was thinking of running away. It may just be a blotched round of DOTA that preoccupied his mind. Both were possible, but the former would have made life more interesting for us.
The car exited the expressway. A Harlem Yu song now played over the radio. It did just enough to suppress the silence.
We drove for no more than two minutes before we were caught in a jam. The red break lights of a thousand cars angrily greeted us. “Wah good game lah. Like got accident in front eh?” My brother reacted. The car stood silent after the first remark and we listened to any radio reports. The time was 8:39 in the evening. In no way was this a rush hour kind of jam. Two more songs came and went as we craned our necks at odd angles to catch what was going on in front. The wail of an ambulance was heard as the cars slowly edged forward. “Bottleneck.” My father guessed. “But it doesn’t seem like a normal accident hor? The roads at this time where got car, where got time for jams?” My mother hypothesized. As we crawled forward I noticed the cars around us, each with its own occupants. Some had families, others just couples. Many cars had in them only the driver. As expected, most of the above mentioned occupants were on their phones. I dug into my pocket and felt its empty bottom.
It was 9:02 in the evening when we reached the accident site. It was a total wreck. A car lay in ruins with a battered bus at the end of it. A motorbike lay casually on the ground to the left of the car, tipped onto its side. There was nothing casual, however, about the blood that pooled beside the fallen motorbike. Even in the night it was obvious that it was blood. Not by the colour, but by the thickness of it. You just knew it was blood, as a human you could easily associate with it. The personnel involved in this mess were probably either receiving treatment or dead. Well, or both. We all looked over to the wreck on the right of our vehicle. I craned over my brother’s shoulder while my dad leaned over the hand brake to grab a look. Yes, somebody definitely wasn’t ever going home again from this. Even with a helmet on nobody could have lost that much blood and survived. The car drove past and the viewing window was only a good five to ten seconds, but to me it felt that much longer. How much longer? I wouldn’t know for sure, but it was that much longer. I know that for some people, traumatic events pass by in a blur. Their minds help shelter them from such events. Time moves faster in retrospect, and when you ask them about what they’ve been through they can’t really tell you for sure.
That certainly wasn’t me. The world seems to slow down, or should I say time starts to slow down. It doesn’t slow down when I’m happy, no it certainly doesn’t. It chooses the most inconvenient times to slow down. Not inconvenient maybe, but just terrible. It chooses the terrible times in my life and slows down. I absorb the scene that passes by our vehicle. I could see the accident happening. The car makes a right turn while unaware of the bus driving into its path. The motorcyclist trails close behind the car and the bus rams into both vehicles and cuts through the lives they carried with expected yet brutal ease. The car grinds to a halt but only because it has dragged the motorcycle along with it in its undercarriage. How can I tell? Because there’s a long trail of blood from the point of impact to the motorcycles’ eventual position. Something tells me the poor guy was dragged those few meters while being pinned under his motorbike. A horrible way to die. His silver motorcycle glimmers in the streetlights.
Everyone is now deep in thought it would appear. My mom looks solemnly forward, focused on the road while dad heaves a deep sigh. My brother and I are deep in thought, looking out the window at the scene no longer there. Again we seem to be separated from this external reality by the car window. It is as if our precious reality, our very lives as it was, was something too precious for that to happen. Were were going to be the protected ones. Again. I reached deeper into my trousers pocket and yet again, found nothing.
The silence was broken again. So many silences were broken I’d post count. “We should have brought our phones out.” Lamented my brother. His voice was sincere, and it was despondent. The first if its kind yet that said I’m sick of pretending. Perhaps we all were. I certainly felt fine though my fingers were still digging into the emptiness of my pocket.
We maintained our positions of discomfort within the car. Who were those people involved? Did they had families? Families like us, lives like us? We couldn’t care less by now. The car drove on.