Level Twelve Bridge Club

We always sat at our favourite little corner after school to play bridge. It was the four of us, the same four every time. We would take the escalator up to the twelfth story after school. There was a nice Sky Garden at this particular bunch of HDB flats, and it overlooked the entire Toa Payoh neighbourhood. It was a nice place to come to after school; to just unwind as the world below us went about its own business.

We sat in a circle as the cards were dealt. Jason was to bid first. “One Spade” he calls. “Walao…I can’t play spade lah. Two Diamonds, ” bids Wei Lun. It was my turn. I had both the King of Diamond and the King of Spade without a particularly strong suit so I just passed, hoping they wouldn’t go into a bidding war. “Two No Trump.” Bids Adam, without much hesitation. Strange, given that I had two kings. I wonder if he had a domineering suit he was waiting to exploit. The game carries on as everybody passes, and Adam subsequently calls for his partner, the Ace of Clubs. It wasn’t a card I had in my hand. This should be an interesting game if it had to come down to my Kings.

At this moment, a woman walks out of the lift behind the boys, and slips to the corner of the Sky Garden unnoticed. She is wearing a pale beige dress with a thin red belt around her small waist. She is probably in her early-twenties by the look of it, though her eyes were sunken and morose, making her look much older than she actually was. She leaned herself comfortably on one of the railings overlooking the north towards Braddell. They can just see her through a small gap in the pillars. Well, they don’t see her yet, but in time they will.

I put down my King. The ace was out during a previous round so this trick was definitely mine. There would be a change of power, then a tough decision to make. Who could my partner be? Could it be Jason with the Spades or Wei Lun with his Diamonds? I look up at Jason and he smiles at me, a very slight smile that makes it certain, all at once, that he couldn’t possibly be my partner. There was no concrete logic to this, and none of the cards thrown before could lead you to this conclusion, but something just felt wrong. I went with the diamonds and threw down a low-value diamond.

Our games of Bridge were not all for fun. The losers usually had to owe something to the winners. We usually played for cash; the losing pair would give the winning pair one dollar each for every round. We had been doing this for a few rounds today and my wallet got lighter with each round. It wasn’t my day for Bridge. Bad cards were made worst with bad decisions, and no matter who partnered me I was doomed to drag them down. Wei Lun claims the next trick, and if my assumption was correct, it would be one more for the win. I would expect him to throw a Diamond so I could claim the next trick with my King. But instead he opts for Hearts and throws out a mid-range Heart.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Sky Garden, the woman looks on into the distance. One look at her posture will tell you a lot about her. She is probably tired as she hunches forward a touch. She looks almost deflated where she stands, as if held up by something beyond her own strength. Underlying that, if you looked really close, was a minute trace of steely determination hidden beneath layers of skin, muscle and bone. It stuck out like a sliver of morning sunlight through a gap between thick curtains. It was slight, but unmistakable. There was a determination she had, a determination to accomplish something.

Eventually, my pair lost. Predictably, I had trusted the wrong person. Wei Lun was not my partner, and the hint of a smile from Jason was in fact a benign gesture. How do you even sense these things? “I don’t want to pay already, partner this guy always lose one!” Exclaimed Jason, who received a playful nudge from me as I tried to defend myself. “I’ll be better next time lah, promise. So far it isn’t my day for this game.” Jason suggests an alternative. “We just play a dare instead lah. Save some money and increase the fun. You just say it, I’ll do it.”

Jason had an impulsive streak within him that would lead him to do incredible things. Well, more like incredibly stupid things. Last year he swallowed a live guppy whole on the account of a dare that got him free canteen food for a week. Stupid Things that Teenagers Do seemed to be the title of his life story thus far. That aside, he was a nice chap, polite and proper. But he just couldn’t resist the chance to show off his bravado.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t one to go for such dares. There was always a proper way to do things, one that didn’t involve public humiliation and putting my poor body on the line. I mean, there had to be a better way so I always yearned to find an escape from such situations. Do a dare? I think not.

“Ok fine, we try find something for you two to do ah.” Adam offers. “Wei Lun go find something leh. This Jason like won’t be scared of anything one lor look at him.” “Come, find one please, try to surprise me this time, guys,” taunted Jason. I didn’t like where this was going. Wei Lun looked around for something, anything that could be contrived into a test for Jason. There was nothing. The whole place was largely empty, except for Jason’s ego that seemed to fill up the entire space. “Just wait, I think of one that will make you regret your request.” Promised Wei Lun. It was at that moment that he focused on the small gap between the pillars, and saw her in the distance, just standing there.

She stood there quietly, watching the world go by under her feet and wished that the wind would carry her off into a faraway place. A place far removed from where she was. There were memories she held of this place, memories too dark to reconcile yet too sticky to escape. These memories were like excess oil spilling out of a car engine, seeping into deep cracks in the road. They once served their purpose, but now the excess flowed freely into the long empty roads of her mind. She longed to escape this road.

“It’s not that bad lah” Jason assured me, “just go there, tell her that line, then we can just run away. She also won’t remember us and like honestly I also want to see her reaction.” I sighed. The dare was simple yet honestly really childish. We had to go up to the woman together but only I was to compliment her about how pleasant she looked. We all knew Jason would do this without any thought, so according to Adam, the dare was for him to make me say the words to her. Damn. How could this possibly end well? But I knew I was better off rejecting an insurance agent than Jason.

We walked between the pillars; through the ceramic tiles of the lift lobby then back to the stone path that was the other side of this Sky Garden. She was now just a few meters away. Her small back was facing us, the thin red belt the clear divider between her upper and lower torso. The fabric of her dress was silky and almost dreamy on closer inspection. Her spindle-thin arms shot out, pale and innocent while her legs had a little more flesh to them, but looked equally fragile. A slight nudge would be all it took for her to lose her balance and fall, no doubt about that.

Normally I would have stopped here and hesitated but Jason kept walking forward at a steady pace so I kept with the dare and followed close behind. I thought of a lot of things while going forward. Things like, who is this woman? What if I actually ruined her day with my words? What if she sees me as a threat? What if I had played the damn Spade instead of my weak Diamond? I heaved a silent sigh. All of this could have been avoided. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Adam and Wei Lun at the lift lobby, eager spectators to my embarrassing downfall. I should never have agreed to join tables with them back in Secondary Two, I thought bitterly.

The plan had always been so simple for her. She visualized the steps. To put her dominant left leg over the railing, then to bring her body weight over the edge. She would then lean further until her right leg, too, left the ground. Whatever happened after that, she was confident that it would be better than the place she was in now. Her brains would be splattered over the ground, and there would be nothing left of her. There would be bliss. She concluded that she had seen enough misery, disappointment and grief in just over two decades. She sat up one day and decided that no, this world had no place for me. Simple as that, a resolution was forged. Looking back she tried grabbing at a reason not to leave. On paper, her life had been fine. Her time in university was considerably fun. She had friends to go around and scored slightly above average in her work. Her parents weren’t particularly well off but they weren’t poor by a long shot. By right, she was going to graduate now, leave for the real world out there. On all accounts she was your average Singaporean girl heading for an office job. Average. Yes, that was the problem

 

Being average. That was the problem. She dreamed often when she was young, of a place far away, a place where she could build a new life. A place removed from what society was teaching her to become, a rat driven to death by work. She worked as a primary school art teacher after Junior College only to find out how spiritually deprived all her students were. They came in without a drop of creativity, yearning to improve their strokes to get their parents’ approval rather than pursuing something greater. Something greater. These ideals slowly started to seep from her mind the moment she set one foot into the real world. There was nothing great out there, just a long road of being average. Average. Ugh.

 

Under the encouragement of reality, her dreams leaked out slowly from the folds of her brain. These dreams were replaced by something dark and unfamiliar. Something like excess engine oil: dark, sticky and formless; and worst of all, purposeless. This dark matter filled her thoughts day and night as she struggled to find a way to express them. She spent the last few years staving off these ravenous thoughts, for they were meaningless after all. They were meaningless, yes, she thought. But if my thoughts are all I have, doesn’t that make me meaningless too?

 

Lost in dense thought, a hand tapped softly against her upper arm.

She turned around to face Jason and I, and we stood there staring at each other awkwardly. I had never felt a stronger desire to run away. It was awkwardness on such an intense level that it renders you senseless. Your extremities become numb and your mind freezes. Jason was nudging me fiercely. I could almost read his mind. Just do it, say it! SAY IT! IT WILL BE OVER IN FIVE SECONDS SAY THE WORDS GODDAMMIT. I blared what I thought Jason was thinking within the walls of my consciousness. I opened my mouth with a start, but closed it again. At that point, I saw it. Her eyes.

 

His eyes. They looked at her with sudden concern and flickered to life. He was about to say something but then closed his mouth as if awestruck. She now studied him, a young boy of about 15 years old in his school uniform. Yes, it was the same school she attended as a child a decade ago. His friend stood by his side. He was also in uniform; slightly taller, and urging him desperately to fulfill a certain task. But whatever task that was, it didn’t matter, did it? His eyes. They stared at her with such innocence; with the type of sincerity a fully-grown adult could never have given her. There was no trace of malice, no ill intentions. Ironically these eyes made her think of both her ex boyfriends, precisely because their eyes were nothing like the boy’s. They held something against her from the start and she could sense it. They did what every couple did; confess to each other, hold hands, go on cute dates and made out feverishly when they felt like it. But it felt so…empty somehow. There was a part of her that these men couldn’t fill not because they weren’t enough. She figured it was because she wasn’t enough for herself. There was the darkness that they couldn’t expunge from her because she simply wouldn’t let them. She guarded this part of herself so well that her then boyfriends would eventually give up trying to find it, and become frustrated and hurt in the process. And so one by one they left her on their own terms. They simply couldn’t fix me, she was always left thinking.

 

But this young boy, he was different. She felt so naked and exposed. She dropped her defences and he looked right through her with those kind eyes, a graceful dolphin wading in the dark waters of her mind. Perhaps while building her resolution to end her life she had inadvertently exposed more of this inner darkness to the outside world. He must have picked up on that instantly. There was no straightforward way of understanding this, but she would like to think that this boy was special.

 

Her eyes were sunken in, and her face a portrait of despair. She pleaded with these eyes, and at once I knew she had an important story to tell, but had no way to tell it, so I could only guess looking through her eyes. She was probably younger than she looked, her face displaying hints of youth. I could tell that she used to be pretty, her cheekbones were high and her eyes glowed faintly through the curtains of death and despair. There was a hidden vibrancy in her that had been long stowed away and forever lost in transit like misplaced pieces of luggage. I tried imagining her with full cheeks and lips, but couldn’t conjure a solid image. She appeared to be a mere skeleton of her former self. I focused deeper into her gaze. They were searching me, but searching me for what? I was fifteen and I was simple. If I didn’t come up here, I would go home to my X-Box and waste the hours away. Besides, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never looked at anyone, male or female, in such a way before; to stare into the inner recesses of their gaze and to sift out what they had to offer. I had seen little of the world. Every second spent in her gaze was like a brand new encounter, a unifying of two totally different worldviews that melded perfectly to form what we knew as this moment.

We stood there in a comfortable silence. The initial awkwardness had been shed, and I lost track of how many seconds passed, though it couldn’t have been many, because Jason was still tugging at my shirt. There was now something tugging at my right hand, and I looked down to realize it was her left hand holding onto me. I took the hint and held her hand in mine. It felt small in mine and made me conscious of how much I’d grown in the past year. Her hand felt deathly cold too. It was a lack of warmth rather than the cold that disturbed me, as it felt so unnatural, like a dark cloud on a clear day. Yet through the cold, I could sense that this hand was searching for something. I was holding on not to a mere hand but the vessel in which her desires were expressed. Desire for what? I couldn’t go as far to tell, but this was a strong, suppressed desire that should have been expressed long ago. Jason stopped tugging at my shirt and I could see his jaw drop at the periphery of my vision. If he had felt the connection we had, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so surprised. I probably didn’t know better, but at that moment I started to believe there are some things in this world that are meant for only two people to feel.

It was not long before I observed her bottom jaw tremble, and her eyes become glossy. She held on tightly to my last three fingers, and proceeded to lean her body against mine. She locked her arms around my back and pulled me in, hugging me firmly. I did the most I could by putting my arms around her as well. We stood quietly in our tight embrace. I started to feel a steady moisture settle on my shoulder where her face was, and could feel her hiccups as they resonated off her chest. I felt as warmth returned to her, the same way warmth spreads through you when you snuggle into a thick blanket. She held on tighter and wept freely now, saying nothing but showing me everything. I started to understand her story through the convulsions between hiccups and through how her small hands interlocked at the small of my back. I don’t know how, but I could sense it; the dark and vacant space deep within her was steadily being replaced by something greater than she’d ever known. And I was the first person to ever know of this space within.

She knew now, that there were some thoughts that didn’t require words to express. She knew with a sudden finality, that this was the person that would understand her, and understand the depth of her grief. On the edge of her life, she was suddenly willing to lay all her thoughts and fears at the rim of her conscience, and now as he held her close she could feel that he fully understood these feelings. It was this that eventually moved her to tears, the feeling that somebody in the world cared. She hugged him back like the little brother she never had. Within him she saw the part of herself she had wrongfully discarded in the past and replaced with this imperfect version. She understood now, that this was not her time to die. Sure, I may still have terrible issues too deep for anyone to fix, but I will have to face them myself from now on. She thought to herself, that she would do this for him. It couldn’t be coincidence that he would appear in her life, and now he was the only person whose existence made sense to her right at the time she needed it most. No, it wasn’t coincidence. I will live on for him, for he is the reminder that goodness and hope still exists within me. And with that, she decided to walk away from the edge.

 

It ended as abruptly as it began. She released me from her embrace and glanced at me one last time, the kind of glance that entailed a glimmer of hope. Why I could sense this hope from her, I could never quite explain. You just felt these things. She walked away gingerly, looking more at ease than when I first saw her. She made her way through the stone path, past Jason and to the lift lobby where Wei Lun and Adam stood, wide eyed with shock. Did I really just hug her for those few seconds? She pressed the ‘down’ button for the lift and in less than half a minute she was gone, wafted down the elevator shaft in relative safety. There was no goodbye, just the warmth of her body that I still felt on my chest.

It was then that I suddenly felt sick. I felt weak and dizzy and I could feel the colour draining from my face. This feeling came at me strong as Wei Lun and Adam ran over. “Alamak! What did you tell her! She just held your hand like that what in the world, then next moment she just hug you eh. She hug you as if she never hug guy before. But she already so old cannot be what. Should have taken a picture lah Adam, we tell other people sure no one believe one.” Wei Lun was ecstatic. Jason replied first, “But…he didn’t say anything. They just stared for a while then before I knew it she pulled him in and was crying on his shoulder, She was really crying! I don’t believe you so handsome or anything lah, this girl sure got some mental problem. But good job man, you exceeded our expectations lah you damn power.” I appreciated their analysis, but I couldn’t bear to listen anymore, for the weakness sharpened and I felt an intense nausea sweep me off my feet.

I stumbled to the side away from the guys, and kneeled down on the ground. I opened my mouth and a warm, dark liquid came gushing out. I looked closer and realized that this liquid wasn’t merely dark, but black as squid ink. I felt better now but was covered in cold sweat. I kneeled there as the guys surrounded me, asking if I was alright. They looked at what I had produced and grimaced. “What you eat sia?” one of them asked. I had no answer for them. The four of us just watched on as the black liquid started spreading with the help of gravity, and begun to seep into the cracks of the stone path.

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