The tiles have worms in them, a cavern of tunnels, little perforations for a network of bugs and critters to crawl through. That I was sure. I tumbled over old newspapers, rickety tables that weighed a hundred tonnes, said hi to the old uncle that lived in this one-room flat. A cockroach wriggled, desperate to catch one last breath.
I step into a brightly lit house, faces greet me, ask me, just why was I so late. I sheepishly tell them I had come from somewhere, that I would explain later. I had to bathe first. It was already bad enough being late for a class reunion, let alone ask to shower. But that was just how it was. I flicked specks of paint off my forearm, scrubbed dirt from between my toes. Goat’s milk soap ran down my body. I felt clean for the first time in four hours.
There were bedbugs after all, in between the tiles, behind little pockets of uneven paint that decked the walls. There was a rusty bed frame that needed moving out. Then there was us, the four of us. Just standing there.
Someone told me to try the Vietnamese spring rolls. That they were made specially for me. Someone told me to eat more chicken rice. The wine was waiting behind in the pantry. I was from this and that school doing this and that. That’s nice, nice to know you’re doing well. Why, thank you. I am quite happy where my life is headed. Life, ambitions, dreams. Silence. The sound of wine being poured. Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been four years.
Uncle has gone to McDonalds to sit so we don’t know what to throw away. We grabbed random items, pulled them aside, away from brown walls once white. A mahjong case thick with dust, a relic of money won and lost. Heaps of clothing unfolded. Tin cans amid leftover food. Cigarettes. More dead cockroaches. Small specks of black peppered walls and floor. Bedbug eggs? We didn’t want to know. We swept away the dust that crusted the spaces behind, the spaces no one was ever meant to see. Maybe that’s what history really means.
Who wants more wine? And so more wine is passed around. The mood is convivial. Remember when we used to do this and that and that and this? The spring rolls were fantastic, vegetable fresh and prawn crunchy. We talk about stuffy classrooms and the stressful syllabus, about idiosyncrasies that didn’t seem to have changed. We talked about what used to be us, now in a distance but still looking bright. And we laughed even more. There were still paint flecks on my toenails.
We began by scrubbing the walls of their history of dirt, and painting them over with our own narratives. The paint gleamed white at first, but dulled to beige as it dried. I still wonder why.
We go in a circle now asking each other what we’re doing. She’s about to work in public relations. He’s going to be a lawyer. I tell them I want to write a novel. It’s like an orientation activity but this was hardly orientation. This was in fact the exact opposite.
Before I knew it I had to leave. A class reunion, I told the other volunteers. Goodbye old house, goodbye the walls that we painted over. I didn’t get to say goodbye to the old uncle that left for Mcdonalds. I packed up to go. There was some sadness in the leaving. A self serving sadness that made me feel better; because what’s worst than leaving this place and feeling good? You had to feel bad for not helping more. Always. That’s what makes you a good person. No?
We had our time back in the days and we laugh about them because nothing comforts people more than a shared history. Forget suffering, because suffering is okay if it’s shared. And in many ways it was shared between us, this group of people who were put together, by and large by random, and given these challenges. Fight for your academic future, they said. And so we did. We fought. And our laughter is the proof that we survived to tell the tale.
I walk down the side of the road. Construction on both sides, the sun is beaming down weakly through the haze. Cars pass by, none of them an available cab. Don’t complain, I tell myself. Your existence is the definition of privilege. You never had to fight it out. Being late for a class reunion would be the least of your worries. Having to bathe at your friends house is just the first luxury of a life inundated with them. You have nothing to complain about, this life is perfect as it is.
I travel home with one of my former classmates. I tell her about what happened before I arrived. That volunteering was nice but it comes with its burdens. She told me some of her concerns. She told me about her grandparents who are hoarders. Who have a hard time letting go of things. And why was that so? We never truly try to understand before telling them to throw things away. I said that we should perhaps listen to their stories. But that’s just me and I’m all about stories and perhaps the world doesn’t work that way. The conversation veers to something else as the bus moves along.