Studio 1959

Taking her on a walk through the outskirts of Chinatown was a bad idea, especially at this time of day. The air itself stung your skin with the accumulated heat, the humidity drawing sweat out like a seasoned fisherman reeling in his cod. I was a sticky mess by the time we walked two blocks. I didn’t know about how she felt, didn’t actually bother to ask.

“Let’s get into here,” I said. I led her by the hand into the nearest cafe I saw, tucked into the corner of a strangely angled shophouse that bisected the main road into two smaller lanes. “Let’s just pretend to eat something and have a rest.”

“Ok.”

We ended up actually eating something. My knife cut the burger perfectly down the centre, and it fell apart like a post party crowd. I felt for the bottom bun with my thumb, and clammed the top with my four fingers, passing her half unceremoniously to her plate, the other half to mine. We chewed like most people do, and talked about the heat in between. It was so typical, so very typical. I could not believe it had been like this for two years. Just me and her, having these little walks, week in, week out. How?

We paid the bill, both of us going very Dutch indeed. We normally cut the bill down to the nearest five cents. I watched as she sipped the remainder of the ice lemon tea. The liquid quickly disappeared as it bottomed out near the part of the glass with the most ice. There was a quick suction sound.

“I’m going to the toilet.” She announced.

“Ok, I’ll just look around.”

“Suit yourself.”

She walked behind the bar counter where the toilets were, as I inspected a staircase near the entrance that led to a second storey. There was a red barrier rope blocking the path, supported by two golden stanchions. I decided to push one of the stanchions aside, giving a quick glance to the blindspot behind. None of the waiters or waitresses noticed me break this precious barrier, so I slipped up the steps on my own.

Above the air was considerably stuffier, like someone took a thick blanket and draped it over me. My neck burned under the wooly thickness of my polo shirt. I stuck two fingers into the gap of my top two buttons and fanned myself by oscillating the loose fabric back and forth. I noticed an overwhelming silence. It was the silence inside a whale’s belly, a quiet that made you feel utterly trapped.

And then there it was, before me a huge bar on the second storey.

The bar covered the entire floor, and was draped in oiled dark wood from floor to bar table. The tables were glass topped with wooden legs accompanied by rattan chairs made of lighter wood. The entire bar was shielded by a wall of bottled spirits that extended to the ceilings, behind the bar, encrusted the walls around tiny windows. From Belvedere clear to Midori green, it seemed a brilliant armour against the outside world, each spirit holding with it the potential for an interesting story to be told or undertaken. It was this bar against the world.

“Welcome,” came a voice from behind.

I almost jumped out of my shirt. It was an old man wearing waiter’s attire.

“Hello…” I started cautiously.

“You know you’re not supposed to be here.”

“I guess…”

“You guess?”

“I’m sorry,” I blurted.

“Welcome then, to my studio.”

“Studio?” I motioned at the wall of hard liquor.

“Sit down.” He commanded without expression, without explanation. He looked at least seventy. Old was written all over his face, from his folded eyelids to his shaky hands as he motioned towards the seat in front of the bar. His movement, though, wasn’t compromised by his age. He strode past me with surprising agility, with the sharpness of a practiced march. He entered the bar, standing opposite me where I eventually sat.

“I’ll make you a drink,” he offered.

“That’s really not necessary.” I thought of her waiting downstairs. She was probably already done.

“No, I insist. I’ve been doing this since 1959.”

I did some quick calculations. Fifty over years. I weighed that with the five over minutes she would take in the toilet. The five minutes won.

“Erm, my friend. She’s waiting. Downstairs. I have to go.”

“Alright, tell me more about this friend.” He gave a cheeky grin. As if he knew something.

“Just a friend. What else is there to know? Just me and a friend. And this cafe. And then this studio.”

Just a friend?”

I looked at him. What was his meaning? I imagined the toilet bowl flushing with great urgency, her rushing out and screaming my name. “I really need to go.”

“No, it’s nothing. I just noticed you holding her hand as you walked into the cafe. It must have meant something more than friendship, at least from how I see it.”

I sighed. A deep sigh that would have lifted a manhole cover if it had the chance.

“It’s complicated,” I finally relented.

“I see that being used on Facebook now and then. Surprising eh, an old man like me on Facebook? But back to you. Do explain what you mean. I never understood complicated.” 

I looked at the old man. An inconspicuous, aged bartender with nothing better to do with his life stared back at me. The air was stiller than an indoor pond.  I decided it would be okay, just this once, to trust a stranger with my secrets.

“I don’t know if we’re together. We never had any labels. Since the start. She liked it that way and I caught on. It’s been two years. We do things but no one knows us as a couple.”

“I see a but coming up.”

I frowned. I tried to come up with a different permutation to start the sentence but my brain failed me. “But … I don’t see it anymore. It’s boring and terrible and I don’t want to be there for her if I don’t have the assurance that she’ll be there for me.”

“I catch your drift. At such a rickety juncture, don’t you want to just end things?”

“We’re too much a part of each other’s lives. It isn’t so simple. We’ve reached that stage of comfort where tremendous consequences would abound should we decide to end things. I have that feeling you know, that we’ll just gravitate back to each other in the end. Somehow.”

The old man frowned, but remained silent. Impatience tightened its grip on me.

“Okay well, thanks for listening. But I really have to go now.” I stood up to leave, tucking the barstool under the counter.

“Wait. I owe you a drink.”

“She’s probably waiting already.”

“Trust me, she’s not.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’ll give you a choice.” Ignoring my statement, he stood up suddenly and got to action, grabbing bottles from the bar counter, exotic spirits I had never laid eyes upon in my short existence. He stirred, shook, layered as he poured in shots and splashes. Brown turned to dark green which then later turned ivory white which then turned grey to red before finally, the drink turned black. Pitch black.

He placed the drink in front of me.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Drink this and your friend disappears.”

“What?”

“Your friend won’t die, don’t worry. Neither will she be cast into an alternate universe. What I’m saying is, you drink this and it will be as if you and her never met. You’ll lose all feelings for her. In fact you’ll forget she even exists, and the same for her as well. Two of you will still exist, just not in each other’s lives. You walk down and she won’t be there. Your problems will be solved. You will be free of this said friendship. Sounds like a deal?”

“Why should I believe you?” Why should I believe him! 

“Fair enough. You don’t have to believe me. But I’ll tell you for sure that this drink isn’t poisonous or toxic. If you drink this and nothing happens then there won’t be much of a consequence, would there? If I were you, I’d give this a shot. Get it, a shot?” He laughed at his own joke. I wanted to walk away then and there.

But he was right. If I truly didn’t believe him I would have just downed the free drink. I always liked a challenge of a horrible drink, and this dark liquid stared at me as if taunting me to back off. It looked absolutely putrid.

The old man pushed the glass nearer to the edge of the bar, his cheeky grin expanding as if the drink mattered. It probably did, at least to him.

Just as the glass was about to tip over the edge, instinct took over and I grabbed the drink, balancing it in my master hand.

“It’s in your hands now. Down it.”

I looked him firmly in the eye this time, this pathetic old man with nothing but deceit and pointless tales. I was not falling for his trap. I let the glass slip through my hands, and made sure both of us watched as it shattered on the dark wood.

The old man’s smile immediately shifted into a frown. He eyed me with comtempt, and raised a foreboding finger at my face.

“You’ll regret this. I gave you a chance for a new start; and you throw it away just like that.”

I had a lot to say to him, so much in fact. But I decided then and there, that I would say it to her instead. We romanticise the intervention of strangers with such fury that we leave out the most important people in our lives.

I turned away from him and marched down, allowing the air to cool around me, the stuffy blanket lifting off my shoulders.

***

She was waiting at the bar counter, inspecting a poster on the history of the clarinet.

“Where the fuck were you? I called you four times and each time your line was down.”

I told her I was sorry. And then I told her. I held her by the shoulders, in the middle of a semi crowded cafe.

“I only want to be with you if you want it as well.”

“Is there something I missed?”

“No, it’s just that I’ve been thinking. It has been two years of this. You know what I mean? This? I dont even know what this is. And I know for sure that it’s time to make a decision. Either you tell me you see a future in us or I walk away right now, plain and simple. What do you say?”

“Where did you go just now?” She asked. She was avoiding the question.

“I’ll tell you later. I just need to know now, how you feel about us. For once I really do. This is me talking now, not the silly boy you’ve been holding hands with for the past two years. It’s me and I want to know. I deserve to know.”

You’ll regret this. I gave you a chance for a new start. 

“Just tell me where you went first. And then I’ll tell you how I really feel. You’re getting me worried.”

“Why is where I went so important?”

“Because clearly it got you thinking about this! I’ve told you from the start that we weren’t supposed to think about us. And now you have and I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Have you been thinking of this?”

“Of course I have! Who do you think I am, a park bench? Of course I think.”

I pointed at the steps, almost envisioned the golden stanchions and the red rope, the smooth steps leading up.

“I went up there.”

But when we both turned around there was nothing. No staircase, no golden stanchions, no red rope. All that stared back was a blank wall; cold, white, formless.


There is in fact a place near Chinatown called Studio 1939, which was where the cover picture was taken. Other than that, the entire piece is fictional. Staircases obviously don’t just disappear and I assure you the protagonist was not under any influence. 

 

A Certain Laundry Room Romance

“Over there’s the broken machine. Right at the end.”

It wasn’t even planned. She just appeared as I was doing my laundry. I looked at her, she back at me.

“Yes, I’ll use this one.” I pointed at the machine in front of me.

“This one has a weird smell. Like someone made love inside,” she giggled.

I didn’t find her funny, but I laughed along anyway. Anything sexual must be laughed at. It’s sort of a rule in college.

She wore an aluminium coloured top that glistened with innumerable sparkles. She was like a star trek character and I the earthling. Her ears were pointed, her nose flat. That was not the only thing about her that was flat; her voice was on the lower end, dull and perpetually half a key below what one would consider normal, like a slowly deflating balloon. Her eyebrows complimented the sad aesthetic, drooping precariously past a certain angle, making her look perpetually gloomy. That was what I noticed, anyhow.

I put my clothes into the love machine anyway. No one could possibly have had sex in there anyway.

“I’ve never actually seen you before,” I started.

“Neither have I.” She admitted. “I thought everyone would know everyone here.”

“You know, I read somewhere that you can ever know 150 people in your life at once. Any more than that and your mental faculties will be on overdrive and you start going crazy.”

“I must be very sane then,” she laughed.

“No what I’m saying is, by knowing you I’m getting closer to that magic 150 mark. I’m getting a bit closer to insane.”

Woah. Stop. What was I doing?

Rewind to a sunny afternoon at my neighbourhood bus stop. I was sipping on an ice cold milo in a celebratory Mcdonalds cup. It was scorching and I wanted nothing to do with the weather.

I kept my free hand safely tucked into my pocket, adjusting the side of my underwear and attempting to untangle my earphones at the same time. I have my ways to pass time.

An old lady slips by and asks me for tissue. She is old, almost as old as time itself. Wrinkly and frail, she hobbles like a stage coach down a rocky road. She does not have a walking stick to aid her, perhaps as a stark refusal to admit to her old age. It’s like how some dogs still sit with their legs spread out, a relic of their youth imperceptibly hard to shrug off. Of course, I digress.

She looks earnestly at me as I tell her that “no auntie, I don’t have any tissue.” I say this in uncomfortably broken Chinese, thinking of what to say next.

“No matter,” she spoke. We stood in uncomfortable silence. The bus could not take longer.

“You studying?” She asked me.

“Yes.” Keep the replies short, I reminded myself.

“Where?”

“University.”

“Nice. My grandson is only Primary five now. I have a granddaughter who’s Primary three. I really hope they work hard. You know how hard it is to do well here.”

“Yes, very hard.”

“Parent support is very important. Good role models, you know?”

“Role models, yes.”

“If your parents don’t push you I assure you it would be hard for you to do so well.”

“Yes, my parents were good. They pushed me.”

“Sometimes I wish for my Grandchildren to have had the opportunity to be raised in a better family.”

At this point it was getting uncomfortable. The tremendous shade she was throwing at her own family made me uneasy. Where was the bus?

“But the blame goes down generations you know? It all points back to me. The way I raised up my child affects the way he raises his children. It all comes back to me, but now that I’m so old it’s hard to go back in time and change all that.”

“It can’t be that simple, can it?”

“Well, after you go through so much you realize a pattern in the way things work. It’s not always true for sure, but it’s hard to break out of a cycle once you’re in it. You don’t even know you’re in it.”

The bus came.

“Thanks auntie, I really hope your grandchildren do well.”

“They’re still young and naughty.” She laughed.

“They’ll grow out of it. I was a terrible child to raise as well.”

The bus door opened, along with it came the liberating blast of air con.

The laundry cycle finished, and out flowed thoughts of the bus stop auntie. I marched back to the laundry room, opened the hatch and piled the damp clothes into the flimsy clothes basket.

“Hey there,” came a voice from behind. It was Star Trek girl.

“Done with drying?” I asked.

“Yes, one step ahead of you,” she remarked proudly.

I walked over to the dryers and shoved fragrant fabrics deep into the chasm. She opened the hatch of the adjacent dryer and out gushed a wall of heat.

“You know, I was just thinking about what you said.”

“Did I say anything?”

“About the 150 people you meet in your life and how any more would be too much.”

“Oh, that.”

“Do you think the random strangers we talk to along the way count?”

“I don’t know. I think it depends on whether you’ll ever see the stranger again.”

“You know you can’t see a stranger again right?”

“You have a point. To be a stranger is a one time affair.” Or was it?

“What I feel is, that you don’t get so many chances in your life to talk to people. Everyone’s too busy waiting for the next bus.”

“Funny you’d say that.” The last item was in, and I closed the hatch.

“Why?”

“Nothing, just, funny.”


This story is entirely fictional. No such exchanges occurred in any laundry room or bus stop, only through places and people I make up in my head. 

47 hours, 5 minutes

“On this blank page lies a world of potential.” I finished off my essay and looked up at the glaring lights that inspected me like divers in a wreck of a sunken ship. Hello world, it’s good to be back.

The library was silent, so silent. Any noise would mean I got kicked out by a bunch of angry university students. I went to the toilet and looked at myself in the mirror. I splashed water onto my face and stared intently at my reflection. No outbreaks— a miracle considering the stressful week that had passed. My eyes were situated far apart, further than I last remembered. My skin was almost yellow in the warm light. I had no other explanation for this other than the fact that I had not slept for the last 47 hours. I was running on caffeine, three cups of coffee, two diet cokes and fifteen energy bars were expanded in my quest to finish my assignment.

I walked back to my seat, wiped my hands on my pants. Cradling my files in one hand, I picked up my laptop with the other, and closed it with my chest.

But wait.

I opened the screen again. There was a bright yellow post-it note stuck onto the screen.

Meet me in the computer lab. 5 minutes is all I have. 

I turned around. There was a light coming from the computer lab behind. It glimmered from the depths of the library like the hungry eye of a sea monster waiting in the hull of the sunken ship. Nobody used the computer labs, I thought to myself.

The glass was frosted, there was no way to look into the room. I sat down for a while, counting down the minutes. There was no reason to go. I could very well ignore the post-it. Three minutes past like the shifting sun. I felt moss grow up my ankles.

I was resolved to stay away from any of this drama, I decided. There was too much drama, too little energy. In fact all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. It was five in the afternoon, on a warm 35 degree celsius Saturday. I had been awake since 6pm on rainy Thursday. Not the healthiest of lifestyles, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do the same. I crushed the post it, and threw it into the bin. It bounced off the edge, and missed.

The furious collective typing of the students filled the library.

I picked up my laptop again, closing it and cradling the last two days in my tired arms. My phone vibrated.

It vibrated again. I had a call.

It was her.

I let the phone ring as I stared at the screen.

Who was this girl? That would be a long story. But it would be safe to say that she meant a lot to me. She meant a lot then, and she still meant a lot now.  In fact, I wouldn’t have hesitated to pick up the call had it been a month ago.

But some time had past, and our lives had shifted courses. She was no longer somebody I saw any future in. I believed that we had resolved our struggles, but I knew this not to be true. There was still a lot unanswered. The day she left was very much shrouded in the ocean mist, the thunder loud and waves roaring, high enough to sink hearts.

Why would she call? I hadn’t left anything with her, I made sure to take all my belongings, and return hers as well.

I remember how our last conversation went. We were at a street corner where a barbershop met a coffeehouse.

“So this is it?” She began by asking.

“You tell me,” I replied.

“This is it then.”

“What really went wrong?”

“What’s with you and finding out everything?”

“I just want to know so I can be better in the future.”

“You can’t live in the moment, dear. That’s what went wrong.”

At that moment I knew I had a lot to say about that statement. How it was unfair to keep me in the grey for so long, how there was nothing concrete to fall back on in our relationship. How we were being pushed about by the wind, unwilling to find an anchor. She flourished in stark uncertainty while I suffered. What was blissful to her was sheer torture for me.

But I didn’t say anything, and she just walked away. Perhaps she was right, I remembered thinking.

Five minutes was up.

The lights faded from the computer lab. I stood at the entrance of the library and noticed everything. The door opened, and a lady walked out. She turned the other way, walked a few steps and paused. The phone was probably on its last few rings. I don’t know why, but I panicked at that moment. Something told me that if I didn’t pick up that phone call that I would never see that girl again. And I was right. I found out later that she was leaving that night to study overseas. I should have known, but I didn’t. I only felt panic.

The lady that stepped out of the computer lab must have been a student. But I didn’t recognise her. She was lanky, like an antelope. There was something in her gait that made her look vulnerable in body but strong in spirit. She was as free as she wanted to be. I knew at once that it must have been her that wrote the post-it note.

Picking up the phone would mean a long conversation. I knew how things went with her, she would pour her feelings out. Real, genuine and thick. I would have to take a deep breath and swallow it all up. There was no other reason why she would have called. By the time the phone call was over antelope lady would have disappeared.

If I walked up to antelope lady I would have to miss the phone call. It was that simple. There was really no two ways about it. A student walked in and bumped into me. He dropped his copy of Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche onto the ground. He bent over to pick it up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before shuffling away.

But antelope lady was almost at the end of the library now. The phone was ringing and the lady was walking away.

I had a choice to make, and I had to make it now.


This short story is almost entirely fictional. No such antelope lady exists in my school, or in my life.

 

The Nuts Continued Cracking

“I liked his smile. Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him.”

It was my mother, talking about her father-in-law. My grandfather.

Through the whole time the nuts were being popped into mouths. Packet drinks and water distributed, plastic straws poked into flimsy aluminium openings.

Our shirts were as plain as a blank page. What was there left to tell the world?

My grandmother played mahjong with a few close relatives. She looked at her tile and chucked it away with disgust. She took a new tile the next round, feeling it with her thumb. She chucked it away with disgust as well.

She was not the first to learn of his death.

“Eat some ngor hiang, we ordered specially from that stall in Serangoon.”

I liked his smile.

“Yes, Ah Yi. I tried already.”

“Offer your friends.” She pushed a plate of savoury rolls to my chest.

“They’re not here today.”

“Ok, fine. If you’re hungry please eat.”

Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him. Was this true?

Just yesterday, Grandmother found out about Ah Gong’s death as she was ladling soup at her stall at a school canteen.

“Don’t worry,” was her first response. “We finish selling all the fishball soup, then we go see him.”

What was there left to tell the world? He was already gone when the news reached her. Discharged from hospital, everyone thought he would at least persevere for the next few months. When all is said and done, the doctors in white coats can only give percentages. Death doesn’t need an excuse.

And so they sold the soup, her hawker assistant and her. She ladled carefully, served the soup with heart. It was her job. She was going to finish for the afternoon. Death was making its rounds, winding in and out of dark, spindly spaces, some lonely, many filled with immense outpourings of love and comfort. But one thing was for sure, death left her stall untouched that afternoon. Food was being served continuously, customers satisfied.

The nuts continued cracking. Popped into mouths.

“What are you working as?” Spoke a distant relative. I didn’t even know his name.

“I’m looking towards journalism.”

He smiled at me, a smile that reeked of the days to come. “Good luck. I hope you don’t drop out. I heard it’s tough.”

“I’ll be ok. I always find a way. I’m hopelessly lazy, but I find a way.”

“There’s only one way to find out is there?”

Funny that we talk about these things at a funeral, I thought.

But of course, funerals are the perfect time for this kind of talk.

My mother looked at my grandmother’s tiles and complimented them. She was on a way to a winning combination, a high scoring one too.

The fluorescent lights buzzed above.

My mother huddled alongside me. She looked on at grandma, as did I.

“That’s Ah Gong and Ah Ma. They weren’t the most agreeable couple. 51 years of marriage and they stuck together through it all.”

She smiled. I reached out to hold her hand.

“They were used to long silences, days at a time, living their lives, not exchanging a word.”

She squeezed my hand.

“But I’m afraid that this time, the silence will be too much.”

She looked on at the casket on our left. A moth flew past my line of vision, landing on the edge of the overhanging fluorescent lamp.

I observed the moth. The brown of its back was elegant and obviously furry, like little feathers. It hung on the edge, then inched closer, closer to the light. It was almost there.

“Ah boy, come here,” yelled my grandmother. Mother pushed me forward by placing her palm on the small of my back. I walked forth.

The fluorescent lights buzzed with maddening urgency.

“Which tile should I throw? I don’t want you to think, just pick.” I looked at the options: There was the north tile, and the three-bamboo tile, both being fresh on the board. This deep into the game, it was risky to discard either.

I paused to think. There was an increasing buzz from above. I placed my hand on her shoulder. It was frail, the bones almost hollow. She might have been meant for flight.

Eventually she discarded the three-bamboo tile. Nobody declared a win, and the game continued.

“You slow lah boy. Your grandfather sure scold me for thinking so long,” she chuckled. I let go of her shoulder.

Yesterday when Grandma finally saw his body her legs gave way. All of us had to hold her up. Time itself seemed to stand still. 51 years summarised in a moment of grief. Who would have expected anything less? Mother was right. The silence, when cast all at once, might just have been too great.

The peanuts were de-shelled, popped into mouths. “Who wants ngor hiang?” announced my aunt for the fourth time.

The moth crawled closer to the light.

The distant relative stepped up and piled some of the ngor hiang onto his plate. He doused them with copious amounts of sweet sauce, thoroughly lathering the rolls.

I stepped forward and took two rolls onto a plate, offering one to grandma. The distant relative was chomping luxuriantly, unapologetically, swallowing in quick succession, one roll followed by the next.
Grandma initially refused, but her trembling hand did eventually pick up a roll as the tiles were being shuffled.

She placed the ngor hiang in her mouth, absentmindedly, taking tentative chews. I watched her closely. The way she ate it gave the impression of tremendous strength, reluctance yet perseverance all at once. Where does one find such strength? Does time make one strong or does it just turn you numb?

There was a buzz from above, the wild crackling of sorts. I was the only one who noticed it.

The moth fell from the ceiling and landed softly on the ground, burnt and expired, motionless in its demise.

The nuts continued cracking, popped into mouths.


 

This is a fictional short story, inspired by real life events unrelated to my family. 

 

The Girl Who Roams the U-Town Green

It was about 4 am, when I noticed the couple on the U-Town green from the 24 hour Starbucks that overlooked it. I was churning out an assignment, getting really focused on Nietzsche’s arguments on slave morality. I had a Chamomile tea to my left, my pen and paper laid out expertly to my right, giving some space between mug and laptop. Life insurance doesn’t cover accidental water damage.

I saw the couple walking, hand in hand, strolling comfortably across the green. The grassy expanse was the central instalment of the university, perhaps for students to hold spontaneous picnics and lengthy discussions, plot out intricate ideas and delve into equations, to live, learn, discover. But it hardly played that function, standing largely deserted in the day as the hot sun rendered its supposed function obsolete while we went into cold dark spaces to languish instead.

The couple trailed across the green like two explorers cutting across snow. The girl was tall, I could see from afar. She had a lanky demeanour and as far as I could imagine, a chirpy voice as well. She was an antelope, but not the kind that got hunted down by the lions. She was the majestic kind, in an environment void of prey. That’s the way I saw her, strange as it sounds. The boy had a stocky build, was a few centimetres shorter than her. He probably had a voice that rumbled like thunder, his hair short, his glasses prominent, and his gaze dreamy. He was the hulk, but the good kind, the kind that was never angry. They existed, held hands, smiled, leaned close. But at such a time at 4 in the morning, they may as well have faded into the morning mist, a figment of my imagination. They sat at the edge of the green, him stroking her hair, her leaning on his shoulder. He whispered something into her ear. I’ll see you here tomorrow, I imagined. His words to her could have meant everything, yet nothing at the same time. It’s the sort of thing you tell yourself to turn the mundane complicated, the meaningless meaningful.

I found myself at the same spot the next morning, at the lonely hour before the sun decided to get out of bed. The sun baked the green then disappeared behind the horizon again, I emerged for classes and then receded into the dark, escaping from the presence of people. I was yet again at the same juncture of this self-sufficient cycle. 4 AM. The couple veered into vision, the stocky hulk and the graceful antelope. They were back. An unlikely pairing, I couldn’t help but think again, like red wine and seafood or checkered shirts and striped shorts. But it worked. They sat at the edge. Talked. She leaned into his shoulder. Nietzsche continued to elude me. My Chamomile tea cooled in the night. They were still. Then she stood up.

She slapped him.

He shot his hands out, tried to grab her, but he grabbed at thin air instead. I sipped my Chamomile. It was almost room temperature. She walked off, wild, prancing. Free, gliding along, gilded by the morning mist. He sat there motionless, counting footsteps, losing count. It was not long before he, too sauntered off.

The next morning the couple wasn’t there. It was only the hulk. He was sitting a few tables from me, head buried in his hands. Incidentally, he was wearing checkered shorts and a striped shirt. Close enough. I put my mug down.

“You ok?” I ventured.

He looked up. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“I’m not ok.”

“Is it because of her?”

“Who else?”

“I saw what happened yesterday.”

“Must have been entertaining.”

“Sure was”

He scratched his head. He hadn’t shaved in days. His voice was nothing like the hulk. It was shrill. I wondered if her voice was deep.

“We only meet here. When we’re done with the day. Just me. And her. Here. Every night. On the green.”

“Only on the green?”

“Only on the green.”

“Why?”

“No reason. It’s just how it goes with us. Most couples meet everywhere. We keep it to the green.”

I looked at the grassy expanse. The darkness challenged me.

“But she isn’t here tonight.”

“I’m glad you noticed.”

“Text her?”

He shook his head. I had a feeling they didn’t text, either. Not your conventional couple.

“We’re not the conventional couple,” he confirmed.

I shrugged my shoulders. Conventionality was not for me to judge.

“I knew it had to end someday. But thanks for looking out for me.” He looked at me in earnest.

“Why did she slap you?” I decided to ask.

“I told my friends about it. About, you know, us.”

“Was there an agreement that you couldn’t?”

“Not that I remembered.”

“Strange.” I murmured.

“Strange.” He repeated.

 

The sun rose and baked the green, then set, and like clockwork I was at the same spot. I sat typing furiously as Thursday night blended into Friday morning, a day where our hopes and dreams for the weekend flourish at the peripheries, an egg yolk about to burst. It was 4 am when I finally finished with Nietzsche. I stared into space. I hated his guts, I silently decided. The computer screen looked fuzzy right before I slammed it shut. The U-Town green emerged from behind. It was being its dark, usual self but there was no couple tonight. No couple at all. The boy’s gone.

Somebody tapped me from behind. I glanced back.

Antelope girl. She stood in the light, wearing a pink dress. It hugged her body with urgency. She smiled weakly, an attractive smile. “Excuse me, but … is he here?”

“Him? The guy you were with two nights ago?”

She nodded.

“Not tonight,” I replied.

She sat down opposite me. I downed my entire mug of Chamomile to ease the tension. It was cold. There was a faint breeze that drafted in from the green. She crossed her arms.

“What’s wrong with me?” She asked.

I looked at her, but didn’t answer.

“Like, I thought he would be different you know?”

“He’s as different as they come.”

“They’re all the same!” She rebuked. She grabbed a napkin from my table and wiped her eyes.

“Come here every night, I’m sure he’ll be back.”

“No. He’ll never return.”

“But you don’t know that.”

She looked at me. I avoided her gaze, looking at my laptop case, zipping and unzipping it. “Do you want to walk with me?” She offered.

“Walk?”

She motioned towards the green. The green stared back; the darkness seemed the stuff on fantasies. Cold and dense, it drew me in, offered the possibilities only opacity could, and transparency denied. It was firm and it mattered.

But I was exhausted. I had four straight mornings of intense Nietzsche. I was deprived of sleep but then deprived of company all at once. I weighed the prospects. What would I gain from walking with her, and what would I gain from falling asleep to videos of cute puppies and the last few pages of Mrs. Dalloway?

“I’m tired.” I finally said.

As if understanding my meaning, she looked at me, smiled, stood up. Walked off.

Disappeared into the night.

Oreo

Oreo recently underwent a severe tick infection and  woke up one day as a giant tick.

It all started from a few ticks here and there, peppered across his body. He probably caught it from rolling around in grass patches during the evening walks. We should have been more careful and kept to the pavements. Then from there they overtook, fought their way through antiseptic barriers, prying fingernails and extensive grooming. The ticks won, and infested my house with the efficacy of a virus, the frightening imposition of an unreasonable law. My dog suffered, and so did we.

But one morning, all the ticks were gone, every last one. We made sure to check the entire house after our ordeal was over, and sure enough, every last morsel had mysteriously vanished. Except Oreo stood now, crouched over the kitchen sink, a gigantic tick. He was four feet long and as thick as a puffy boaster before your head sinks in.

No one was about to sink anything into the monstrosity. My parents cordoned off the kitchen area, holding their ground. My father told me to stand back from the door as he regarded the thing with fear. “He may stick its stinger thing through the door and suck your blood dry,” he warned. But he’s our dog! I insisted. No one was listening, much less convinced. My mother quickly dialled pest control.

I walked to the window and observed him. The tick had a brownish back that tapered to black towards his head, a few hairs poking out between his eyes. You didn’t notice these things when seen in miniature form, but this was as good as a microscopic view of the damn pest. It was revolting. The stinger probed out, waving about like a wizard wielding his wand in search for an object to cast a spell on. I looked on in horror infused fascination. I was still convinced it was my dog. It had to be.

“Pest control won’t believe us!” Shouted my mother, phone dangling from trembling hands. We were in a state of positive panic. “Why did you tell them the whole truth?” Blared father. My mother placed the phone on the receiver and took a deep breath. “They can’t catch that thing with a butterfly net.”

And she was right. Perhaps a bear trap would have to do, but to think of the juices that would explode and dirty the entire kitchen if it had to come down to using a bear trap. It needn’t come to that, I decided. I had to do something before my parents resorted to the unthinkable. They hadn’t mentioned killing him, but I was afraid the current sentiment would lead to that inevitable conclusion.

I opened the door. My mother ran forward but father held her back. A parent shouldn’t have to watch their kid die, but I was confident they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I stepped in and closed the door behind me. The kitchen lights were turned off and my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It wasn’t so easy to make out his entire form from the brightness outside.

Beady black eyes followed me as I pranced around the perimeter of the kitchen. He stood on the sink. I was not sure at all about anything he would do, but I was confident it would be anything but to hurt me. I took a can of biscuits from the top shelf. His gaze never left me, and a slight pivot could be discerned as his six legs adjusted to balance on the edges of the sink. It became a game of who could read whom first.

I took out a cream cracker from the biscuit tin and presented it to him. His antennae began to move about wildly, then uncontrollably, almost like ruffled leaves in the autumn breeze. But really, it was more like a dog wagging its tail. It was he. “Oreo,” I called out. He looked up at me. I threw the cracker on the floor in front of the sink and he jumped off like a loaded spring and devoured it. My mother let out a scream outside and disappeared from view behind the glass door. My father watched on, pale faced, holding on to the doorknob, about to burst in on the first sign of trouble. I was doing well. I had to do more to prove he was our dog, and not a hungry tick after our blood.

I reached my hand forward, very daringly and with a heart of faith. Nothing was going to happen. I could pet his brown scaly forehead like I always used to. The texture would be different, the being entirely the same. He made soft squeaky sounds, his demented proboscis of certain death waved about manically, attempting to feel at any flesh that came nearby. But he liked me! I was his owner and he my dog. He wouldn’t use his member against me, would he? It was hard to tell but I reached out, one inch preceding the next before I was a subway 6-inch away.

The door burst open and my father charged in with a hammer raised up high, I could glance from the peripheries, something dark and unnecessary being raised in some sort of aggressive stance, a warrior with his mallet. A huge swing came thundering down with the swiftness of finality. Bang. The floor was struck. Oreo clambered over me before I could react, jumping on my chest but never intending to attack me. One of his six legs clinched onto my shoulder and he propelled himself over me, artfully dodging the hammer, scuttling between my father’s legs like a football. My father fell forward in shock, tumbling over me. The door was ajar, and so Oreo did the sensible thing and scuttled out. Mother was laid out on the floor, struck unconscious by the morning’s interesting turn of events. He sniffed her face before deciding that licking her with the proboscis of doom would do no one any favours. He moved on to the front door, and my mother was none the wiser to his advances. I was relieved.

Father got up in an instant and made a run for the animal. He was in full fight. He’s not going to hurt us, I wanted to say. I should have said. It was hard to get through to a man hardened in life, seeing fingernail size ticks in his fifty-odd years then suddenly encountering a larger, much cuter cousin. Did it even occur to him that maybe, just maybe, this creature was just my dog in a ticks form? Of course not, I thought. We live in a world where form is everything. He would as soon believe Hitler to love the Jews.

I followed closely behind, and saw for myself the true horror of Oreo’s newfound abilities. His proboscis punched hole after hole through the wooden front door, tearing the base of it apart before our eyes like a raging elephant impaling his trainer. Splinters flew, along with my satisfied imagination. My father stepped back, and so did I. It was a work of art. Not the door, mind you. Art is the fact that it was the door, and not us, that was going though this severe treatment. Art is the beauty of a situation despite its potential for ugliness.

He punched a hole big enough for himself and felt about the edges with his feelers. He looked back at us one last time, beady black eyes shimmering. So long old friend, I muttered under my breath.

My Dad and I watched as he scuttled out into the streets. Strangely, there were no screams. Not yet.

“Was he wearing a collar?” I asked.

My father did not reply.

A Place Where Lonely People Go

It was 4 in the afternoon and there I was, in a place where lonely people go. There was nothing particularly special about this place, just a nondescript study area with huge fluorescent lamps inspecting the people dispersed in their solitude. Cubicles dividing, yet strangely orderly and united in their division. Tables grey, some white, chairs charcoal black. Huge Mackintosh screens peppered the space, unable to function in any other way than precisely the way it was meant to. I sat there twirling my pen, ensuring the pen looped around my thumb and came to rest at equilibrium. Time after time. The glass walls stared back and challenged me to talk to them.

I ignored the walls. I had a book in my hand, a political theory text with eighty pages unread. This was a place where lonely people go, the perfect place to devour a text, the sandwich for the flustered businessman, food rations for the starving soldier. Dreaded, but necessary. In the small space there was no one, yet everyone. People of the strangest dispositions, origins and resolutions sat well spaced, like a silent fart saturated through a stuffy classroom. There was nothing to look forward to here, but the shiny prospect of a future that we did not yet know existed. It was a frightening place to be, almost a transitory point to somewhere greater, which it turns out, is anywhere but here.

A man and a woman sat opposite me in the study space, at separate cubicles, weaving tarnished versions of what life had to offer. Their eyes nailed to their work, before the blue glow of Facebook reflected brightly in the man’s glasses. Suppressed laughter, the sound of procrastination ensued. The woman looked over in irritation. Her eyes spoke “fuck you.” I watched as they scribbled, typed, scribbled typed. A white man was falling asleep, drool quickly forming. He sucked the drool like a plumber removing silt from the bottom of a clogged sink. Is this a place where dreams come to die?

It certainly was. A girl stood up to my right. I call her that because a girlish quality could be observed in her gait, a springy one as such, jaunty and excited for the future that didn’t yet exist. She walked past me with an empty water bottle, the emptiness allowing light to pass through unobstructed, undistorted. In the emptiness held the vast reserves of truth and honesty. The emptiness, it seemed, was all our lives are doomed to tend towards. She walked out, presumably to refill her bottle. The door closed with a light thud, the loudest sound I would hear for the next three minutes.

“I want to get out of here,” I whispered. I glanced around, making sure no one had heard me, making sure no one would label me as a lunatic about to set the world on fire. “I want to get out of here!” I whispered again.

Still, no one turned. I smiled to myself. The woman to the top left of my field of vision reached over and scratched her bum. Two men walked in and scoured the space for seats. They came together, but little did they know that this togetherness was an illusion that the cubicles would help them come to terms with.

The Bombay Bicycle Club faded into the soundtrack in my head. “Leaving Blues” danced on the peripheries of my mind. In a space so tainted with loneliness it was only natural that it did. “You’re leaving” somebody whispered, but it was nobody. Sadness truly seeps in when nobody whispers something that would be sad if somebody whispered it anyway. Meanwhile my book would not read itself with the same intensity that my life resisted living. I focused, stone hard vision piercing through a book that seemed to be made entirely of diamond. My highlighter hovered above fresh pages, a laser primed to be shot but a mechanic unsure of how lasers should be shot.

The two men finally found their seats, separated into two different cubicles, softly acknowledging their loneliness. Loneliness was theirs, but they were never lonely, it seemed. Both took out their phones, both felt like they had a life outside here they could very well be at. I shot my glance back to my book. The door clicked open.

The girl was back. The woman scratched her butt again. The white man woke up and grunted. A few people turned their heads. My highlighter fell out of my hand, precisely when the girl brushed past me, it was out of my control. My vision blurred, she stepped on the highlighter. The girl fell forward, let go of her bottle. I regarded the scene with the helplessness of a bystander. The bottle flew in the air, even the white man looked up from his reverie.

It fell onto the table, released its tremulous load and soaked my book in the promises of yesterday, my highlighter crushed beyond repair, my resolutions finding a hole and quickly jumping into it without coercion.

“I’m sorry,” she would later say.

“Don’t be,” I would tell her

“Why?” She was curious.

Because this is a place where lonely people go, I thought.

 

 

Cover Photo Credits