It is the way they are kissing. The woman, with blonde hair tied in a loose bun, cradles the man’s head in her palms, as their lips press, part and seal, and move in the same rhythm. You get distracted by her hair. Those homeless strands, dangling and wafting in the air like some lost spirits, make you uneasy. You imagine yourself gelling them in place for her, then sticking in at least half a dozen bobby pins to secure the bun from disintegrating into frazzles (Heaven forbid!) with the standard rock-and-roll style head-bob you use as your litmus test for your own hairdo.
The man’s, or rather the very young man’s (you feel the need to correct yourself) wavy ash-brown hair tickles her cheeks. Even from such a distance, you too feel a tingling sensation travelling up your arms and down your spine, and yet she doesn’t seem to mind. She seems not to mind too many things, you feel. Like her laptop bag that is leaning against her calf, the forlorn strap twisted into an eight on the dusty floor. You visualise the dirt and bacteria that are stuck to the strap, which will get transferred to her hands and body later, which she will carry home. You frown, your facial expression contorting into a strong disapproval.
Trains roar in and out of the subway in New York City, a city where you have lived for the past two years, and are about to say adieu to in a month’s time. Adults and children zip past the couple at different speeds; some stop and gawk then shake their head and leave, while some giggle as they point at the lovebirds—like the little boy with his hair tied in a ball, while some simply dash past without a turn of their heads.
But you, and only you, have stayed, watching them from across the platform for the last thirty minutes. When the next train arrives, I’ll leave, you promise yourself.
Yet you remain.
An aged man wearing a blue and white chequered flannel shirt tucked into a pair of grey cotton pants staggers over, with the help of his wooden cane, and pauses in front of you.
His silver white moustache quivers in the air as he chuckles and announces in a deep-throated voice ‘Look at them! Just like old times, like old times’. Then he hobbles away, still grinning, leaving behind a trail of familiar scent. Not the smell of cologne, but a light fragrant aroma, like toasted bread, and in that instant moment of recognition, your memory is rekindled.
It was my first day of primary school, and Mum woke me up before dawn. In the dark I drew my pine-green pinafore over my head, settling over the white short-sleeved cotton blouse. My mother swept her hand across the front of my uniform, ironing the pleats against my thigh, making a hushed rustling sound. Then she reached for the same colour belt and put it around my waist. The faint beam from the window at the far end of the room lit one side of Mum’s face. She pressed her thin, deep wine-coloured lips together in her usual way whenever she had a task on hand, but her eyes drooped slightly. A whiff of the aroma of toast bread emanated from her hair.
In the haziness, I could make out the size of the objects in the room from the different shades of black, but not the details, it was not necessary—I could draw everything, or walk around without banging into anything, blindfolded. The air was slightly chilly. Plus, with the dark vagueness surrounding me, the atmosphere had a dream-like quality to it. That morning, everything felt like a dream, and time stretched. In fact, after I had grown up and left this place, more than a decade later this room still constantly appeared in my dreams. Everything felt so surreal in there.
From my right side—where the huge bed was—my father’s out-of-tune snore sounded jarring in the peaceful silence of the dawn. I wanted to run over and pinch Dad’s nose, then wait for him to choke and gurgle, but something in Mum’s demeanour made me hesitate. Or rather, her going on as usual, instead of warning me ‘No’ made me pause for a second, and I aborted my plan.
I slumped on the floor and as I reached for my socks, Mum said, ‘Come and have your breakfast when you’re done.’
Then she stood up and walked to the door where she hesitated. One arm on the jamb, she turned around to look at me again before leaving the room.
‘Okay,’ I replied and looked up, just as she disappeared from my sight.
My heart skipped. A feeling washed over me like steam. I remembered the last time I had this same sensation. Mum was so severely ill that I thought she was going to die. She had woken in the middle of the night, drenched in her perspiration, screaming ‘Go away! Go away!’ with her arms flailing, like she was shooing stray cats that gathered at our doorstep every other evening, calling out throughout the night, disturbing our sleep.
Mum’s siblings scrambled in and out of the room with wet towels and water-filled basins, muttering words like ‘hospital’, ‘serious’ and ‘so strange’ under their breaths. My uncle even had to pin my mother down to the bed so she wouldn’t dash out of the house or worse, bang her head against the wall. I curled myself up in a corner of the room, sucking my right thumb, blinking, and blinking harder, and blinking even harder. That was the only way I knew to stop my tears from flowing. A horde of thoughts swarmed in my six-year-old mind like flies, black and persistent. My fifth aunt came over and asked if I knew where my father was. I shook my head. The hoo-hah lasted till almost dawn, and when I was certain that my mother wasn’t going to die, I finally closed my eyes and plunged into the deep ocean of sleep.
Till this day, I have always wondered if Mum truly witnessed something that none of us saw that night. What did she see? Or was she hallucinating?
The hardness of the floor made my butt ache, and I shook my head hard to dispel that feeling. Hurriedly, I pulled one sock up my right calf, folded two folds to my ankle, and then did the same for my left. Then I slipped into my new Bata white Mary Jane canvas shoes and ran out to the kitchen. Mum walked me to school that day, and several days after. A week later, when I came home after class, I couldn’t find my mother anywhere. I waited for her to come back that night. I waited until my eyelids couldn’t hold out any longer and shut on their own; she still wasn’t back.
It was a few days later that Dad told me Mum had moved out. I asked my father when she would be back. He looked at me like I was asking him when the next meteorite shower would come.
Grandma replaced Mum to cook and wash for us, while I made my own breakfast consisting of two slices of toast bread and a cup of Milo, and managed my own affairs. Eventually, life became normal for me. As for Dad, nothing changed, except that he came home more often, though still not on a daily basis.
It was only six years later that I discovered my mother’s reason for leaving. Or rather, who she was leaving.
Then, I realised that my mother was not going to die, after all.
Only I had begun the dying from the day she left us.
The man has shifted his hands from her waist to her face, cupping her left cheek, his thumb caressing up and down. Her right hand now wraps the back of his head, while her left hugs his shoulder.
Their eyes remain closed all this while. Their waists almost glued together, and their knees graze each other achingly. Her left foot lifts up backwards and tiptoes itself on the floor, like she’s about to take off any minute from now and fly to the stars. Your arms have the urge to flap and soar. Of course, you keep them in place. However, you can’t stop a grin crescenting from your thin lips.
Without looking at yourself in the mirror, you know you are that ten-year-old girl, ogling at a pack of rainbow coloured candies in your mother’s friend’s hand at a Christmas party. You hadn’t tasted anything like that before. Ever since your father’s business went bust when you were eight years old, you only had the occasional treats of sweets sold three for ten cents in the shop next door. Nothing so fanciful as these candies, you knew. Your mother caught your rude stare, came by and returned a glare complete with a stiff face. You swallowed hard, bit your lips and pulled your head away from that temptation. When the lady with a generous laughter and coiffure-hair sashayed over to you, you forced yourself to look at her well made-up face, shake your head, smile and say ‘No, thank you, Auntie’ to her extending palm with five candies. She was surprised at your rejecting her expensive candies, and patted your head and complimented you for your excellent manners. From the corner of your eyes, you saw your mother putting on the slightest smile.
You have exactly the same glint and sorrow in your eyes now. You swallow hard, and clutch your handbag to your chest, feeling the different emotions coming together like herbal soup, all blended in one big cooking pot that you can’t tell what ingredients it consists of.
Their heads turn and switch sides in a natural rhythm like two notes on a score. You might have had such a love song too. But, in the same recurring pattern, things just braked in a jolt and swerved onto another course.
My mother did come back after all. On my sixteenth birthday, I threw a party. Almost all my classmates, and at least half of my school in the graduating year came, treating it as a farewell gathering too before we all split into the various branches of tertiary or pre-tertiary education. My mother had told me she couldn’t make it, so when her head popped out behind the wall next to the gate, I was speechless.
‘Who was that?’ Most of my friends asked. ‘My mother,’ I told them, with the air of a three-year-old showing off her first ‘Happy Family’ drawing to her classmates. Mum told me to make a birthday wish. I closed my eyes, clasped my hands, and made three.
That was the best birthday I ever had. After she left, my friends told me I looked like her. You have your mother’s eyes, they observed, wide with small black pupils, with one single and one double eyelid. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to resemble her in more areas.
That night after everyone left, I sat on the cold, unfeeling marble floor in the empty living room, amidst the open wrappers, deflated balloons and presents, and cried. Why had I felt so lonely that night, I didn’t know. Neither did I understand why I had felt so orphaned, when Mum visited me every week after she left, taking me out to shopping malls and for McDonald’s meals, and I had Dad at home most, if not all of the time. The urge to cry had come from somewhere deep inside me, a well that was dug deep, accumulating heavy emotions over all these years. It was not my heart, but somewhere deeper. It could be my gut, or perhaps even deeper, maybe? Who knows?
The next day, on the first day of a brand new year, I told this guy that he and I were impossible. He asked me why. He couldn’t understand this abrupt decision, and such a turn of events. He thought he had stood a good chance.
‘Haven’t we been happy for the past nine months?’ he asked, with a painful look on his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, pinching my thigh first, and then rubbing my hands over and over under the round stone table. I stared at the chess board inscribed on it.
Again, he asked me why, and said he still didn’t understand. Neither did I. I guessed I had accepted that people were meant to part eventually. So, the sooner that happened, the less pain it would bring.
That evening, at the void deck of my flat, he kept asking me why and I kept repeating ‘I’m sorry’. That was all I could say.
He cried, covering his boyish face with his big tanned hands—hands that were nimble, at times crafty, when they were dribbling the basketball across the court; shy and gentle when they picked a leaf or a lost grain of rice from my hair; and clumsy when they made a card for me with cut-out hearts and rustic sketches on one Valentine’s Day. Only his thick eyebrows appeared in little dark brown dots and squares between his trembling fingers. He sounded like a broken toy. For a moment, I found it hard to believe that the boy, whom a dozen of girls had a crush on in school, was crying before me, because of me. Almost the whole school knew he was going after me. My heart urged to reach out to him, hold him in my arms, and tell him that I take my words back. ‘Okay, let’s give it some more time,’ I’d say. But my mind restrained me. My heart and mind were like two states, each ruled by their own laws.
I felt I should cry too. I squeezed my eyes several times, and pinched myself harder. But no tear welled up. I must have drawn all of it out last night, I consoled myself in a feeble attempt to justify the numbness I felt.
‘I will wait,’ he promised before we ended that talk.
I asked myself the whole night if I should take his word seriously. Believe him, my heart whispered. Don’t be foolish! my head loud-hailed.
Five years later, I repeated the same thing to him. This time he didn’t ask me why, which was just as well, because I still had no answer why I wouldn’t love him.
Last Sunday, four more years later, my former classmate emailed me informing me of his wedding date, which coincides with my return. I didn’t receive his invitation card. I believed it must have gotten lost in the mail, having to travel such distance, with the added confusion of our reversed days and nights. Penny, the school gossip and my only link to that era wrote—the bride-to-be was our junior in secondary school.
From the moment I knew about his upcoming wedding to now, I have not stopped thinking about something, and for the past seven nights, struggled with my desire and my morals. In a familiar rebound, my body is going through a divorce again—my heart and mind signing the separation papers.
Train No. 8 wheels into the station, spits out its assorted contents onto the platform and swallows even more into its slender and fit stomach. A cacophony of swooshing, tapping, stomping, ringing, shaking, vibrating, cranking, chatting, laughing and yelling, swells like escaped gas in the air and envelops you. You feel dizzy in all this bustling.
As the train departs, yet again, you regain your full view of the couple, who are still absorbed in their own world of passion, their lake of bliss, kissing like they were about to die the next minute, next second.
How could anyone live like there isn’t anything or anyone else in this world to care about? you wonder. It must be their culture, you rationalise in your head, we don’t do this in Singapore. We don’t kiss like this in public, at least not in a subway station. No, we don’t. You re-affirm it in your head.
Your eyes scan the jet-black skirt suit she wears over a white blouse that looks like it has some frills at the chest, given those few and far between glimpses you have when his chest is not pressed against hers, and factoring in your distance. She must be much older than you, you conclude. Why, you’re almost certain that you see a set of crow’s feet clawing out from the edges of her eyes! It must have been age that makes her so bold, so oblivious to her surroundings.
You try to convince yourself that you just need a few more years, and then you too will have the courage to follow your heart. You are trying so hard to convince yourself that your heart hurts. The pain of your memories, plus the agony and the envy of this picture before you makes you breathless. At the same time, your memory continues to draw you in …
My maternal grandmother had too many children and insufficient love in her bony frame and weak heart to go around so she could only dote on those milestones in her history of motherhood: the firstborn, the lastborn and the only boy; none of whom was my poor mother.
Being born smack in the middle of eight children—and being born a girl—my mother cared for her younger siblings, helped her elder sisters while serving my uncle, the king who ruled everyone with simply a body gesture. She received beatings and beratings more than cuddles and compliments—or candies; or even new clothes for Lunar New year for the matter. So when the matchmaker with a golden front tooth slid through the door—letting her ample butt in first without getting jammed—and examined, with a sly grin, this eighteen-year-old, , my mother, on all fours wiping the floor, immediately made her up mind. .
The marriage proposal gave her a choice. It didn’t matter that she could have married better had she chosen to wait for her childhood sweetheart to return from his studies abroad. All that mattered was to flee from that cold and hard house.
How one gives up love so easily, I wondered about this for a long time. The only reasonable answer to this unfathomable question is that her river of hatred, especially towards my grandmother, overflowed and washed out and flooded every blade of grass that was fertilised by love and longing. Again, it is much, much later that I understood that it wasn’t love that Mum gave up. On the contrary, it was love that she was dying to have when she nodded her head to the matchmaker.
Mum loved Dad in the best way she knew, including turning a blind eye to his extravagant ways and his social gambling, and inventing a rainbow of excuses to placate Grandma, who was upset by Dad’s frequent nights out. ‘Social’ was what Dad claimed, but in my definition, it was habitual. As Dad’s businesses went bust, one after another, as he frittered away his inheritance faster than chocolate melting in your palm, he too melted away from Mum’s life.
I asked my parents separately if they loved each other when they were married. Both gave me the same stare: blank and far.
So they had something in common after all.
If there was no love in their marriage, then the only reason for my existence is clear. I wasn’t a product of passion. I was a product of obligation, which my parents had enough to bring me into this world, yet insufficient to last until I found my own happiness. Hitherto, I closed the door to my heart, and buried the key in such a deep spot that, as the years passed, even I had forgotten its existence. I successfully believed that love was but a fantasy, and a happy marriage was but a fairy tale. That it was only a matter of time before one outgrew these ideas and accepted the reality.
What then is the reality? My mother’s version goes like this: Men cannot be trusted. While my version is: Love won’t last, and a relationship bound by law has the same significance as a child borne out of obligation—it’s all an illusion that fades away.
Do they love each other? you wonder. It’s probably a moment of passion, and even lust, you reckon with a smirk. Even if there is love, how long would it last—one month, one year or perhaps, if they work hard enough, two years? People change all the time, along with their feelings. If the duration of their kissing could be used as a gauge, perhaps they could last for a good year before the pulsating feeling starts to peel and wear off like wallpaper crumbling under the dense humidity.
You hate yourself each time you get so sceptical. And yet you can’t stop this ugly monster from gnawing into your mind, penetrating its poison into your soul. How is it that you are still unable to escape its clutches, even after fleeing here; the other side of the globe?
You remember the first year you arrived in New York—the first Christmas and Thanksgiving, your first birthday, the first Lunar New Year. As like any other day, you took the subway and walked the distance back home alone, with only you and your thoughts. You busied yourself around the house and spent the whole day watching DVDs. But when you crawled into bed and curled up under the chilly quilt, the dreaded loneliness climbed in as well, lying beside you, eyeing you with sympathy, breathing its heavy air onto you. The longing to have someone spend the festive with you, warm your bed in the icy winter night and chat with you until you drift to sleep in his warm and secure arms, surged like a geyser, steaming your facade of iciness, melting it into a pool of tears.
That will all be over when I return home, where my family and friends are, you tell yourself. Yet, there’s this little voice that rings an alternate message in your ears, a message that you know is the truth, but you refuse to hear of it.
The voice says: ‘You are lonely, and you will be lonely for the rest of your life.’
You cover both your ears with your hands, just as Train No. 10 rushes in.
My mother’s unhappy childhood and teenage years had propelled her to escape to a loveless marriage. Whenever I looked at her back as she sat alone on her queen-sized bed, a question would inevitably pop up inside my head: What has my own childhood driven me to?
She had plucked up her courage in search of happiness, but I have drifted endlessly into bouts and bouts of avoidance and rejection. Fear has taken the form of an evil and monstrous-looking creature, snarling its vicious teeth at me each time I give in to my impulse; making me back off before I even take one step forward. Have I always been so fearful? Have I never done anything that would make me proud of myself? I question myself. Then, one incident emerges from my memory.
Rumours, as if they had wings, flew around the entire neighbourhood. When it reached my ear after a long and winding journey, I dared the person, standing one head above me, to repeat it to my face. Like a parrot, she obeyed. ‘Your mother is just a loose woman who leaves her husband and daughter.’ The next moment, five red slender finger marks burned on her left cheek. My neighbour’s mother marched up to me, huffing, with her daughter in tow—together with those five finger marks, now drenched in tears—and demanded an apology. I put both hands on my hips, lifted my chin up, stared at her squarely in the eyes, and demanded the same. None of us moved an inch in our positions, for a long stretch of time, or at least I felt so. Eventually, she turned around and stormed out. I took it as my victory, and to make it even sweeter, I yelled at her to teach her children some manners. The finger marks grew wings too and helped me spread my courageous and upright deed. That was the last I heard of anything remotely related to my mother.
Mum scolded me when I told her what I did. ‘How can you slap someone?’ she asked.
‘Why not?’ I said in defence.
‘Firstly, you’re still a kid, and secondly, violence is wrong,’ she explained.
I still didn’t see what wrong there was to mete out a punishment to a most deserving criminal.
‘You can’t help what other people want to say about you,’ Mum said, ‘because that’s how the society is. That’s how people are. They gossip. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you need to do,’ she added.
The society then, in the nineteen-eighties, treated divorce as a shame bigger than infidelity. But my mother defied the unspoken rule and forged ahead, and became the first, and perhaps only, woman in that neighbourhood to claim the marital status ‘Divorced’.
And so does this woman. She defies the unspoken rule of public decency and expresses her affection in an open, uninhibited and passionate way. And isn’t she the one pulling his face towards hers and kissing him?
As you recall this incident, your mother’s words, which you’ve forgotten until now, once again ring in your ears, ‘That’s right. You should do what you should do.’
As the train-door closing beep rises above the noises, an electrifying jolt zips through you, and your hands jerk. You could stay, or you could move on. You could remain the same, or you could change things.
In a moment of epiphany and a new resolve, before the train door shuts you out, you jump into the carriage, back into this world, leaving behind the kissing lovebirds, and more.
As the train departs, you behold the couple one last time through the window, and smile. You know exactly what you will do when you reach home later.
You will make an international call, and give him the reason that you have owed him for nine years. Three weeks may just change your life, and maybe his, before he becomes someone else’s husband.