他和她

PIE (Changi Airport). He was at the wheel. She was beside him. They were enveloped by the yellow glow emanating from the street lamps. Just passed an hour after midnight, they had just watched a 90-minute film – a romantic story which seemed like the Chinese version of “The Notebook” – at a friend’s. The night was engineered by his friends for a specific purpose.

They were hoping.

He had hope.

“I have been thinking about keeping a cat as a pet,” he spoke after a minute of silence. They were in between conversations and they had one earlier about how she preferred cartoons and animae to films about romantic love.

“Oh,” she responded. “That’s nice.”

“Yeah. I have always wanted to have a pet. I reckon it should be a big lift for me mentally and emotionally.”

“How so?”

He raised his eyebrows, which under the soft yellow glow could not be noticed by her.

“I guess they can be therapeutic. You know, pets can lift spirits after a long day at work. When all you have been dealing with all day are humans who can stab and hurt you anytime, coming home to a living creature who is loyal to you and less likely to hatch schemes to discredit you can be a delight. Moreover, you can confide in your pet and secrets will never get leaked out and what you said will never come back to haunt you,” he explained.

“Oh. I don’t know. My family had a dog once, a long time ago. That’s about it, I guess.”

There was silence in the car again, but there was already a wry smile on his face. It accompanied his thoughts about how some people could be polite but words they did not say spoke volumes.

***

MSN conversation.

 She was sifting through her list of contacts on a social-networking website.

“Ah. So how? Found anything interesting,” he probed.

“Yeah. There’s this ‘XX’ listed,” she replied. “I’m trying to find out who this person is.”

“It could be me,” he said.

“What’s your nick or name then? How come I don’t know you’re part of my contact list?”

“Er… I’m not sure. I don’t log in often.”

“This ‘XX’ nick is ‘perdant’. This person is so negative!”

A long pause followed.

“That was me.”

***

They were hoping.

He thought he had hope.

Never meant, never be

Within less than 24 hours, he received news of a breakup (which bucked the melodramatic trend) and had his brain picked for a “what I can do for my two-week old fledging romance on Valentines Day” poser by a male colleague*.

A wry smile flashed on his face as he typed this down, reflecting on how life just doesn’t get any more extreme or funnier.

Then he realised that as he grows older and for all the angst he has experienced, loneliness becomes more bearable. Gradually, Valentines Day is no different from the rest of the 365 in a year.

It’s still uncertain if he believes he can live with himself and being with himself, having no one else to share his emotions (which include the joys and sadness of life) or thoughts with. However, he knows the ideals of youth will fade through time and the perspectives on love, life, dreams and hopes change with every dusk and every setting sun.

“A mate is nice to have, but if she doesn’t come, then perhaps some things are never meant to be.”

* He is the last person the male colleague should ask actually.

Twelve years on

The sound of a ringtone echoed in the jungle as night fell, breaking the silence. It was a campy one but then, to one of the tens of men who were far away from civilization it represented the sound of heaven.

A man got up from sitting on the damp grass, plucked out a phone – wrapped up and waterproofed in a Ziploc bag – from his pocket, and strayed away from a group of wet, tired and bleary-eyed men. Despite his hushed tones, all within earshot could hear the sweet nothings exchanged between him and a feminine voice on the other line.

It was that quiet.

He watched the man, who had wandered a fair distance from the group and was immersed in the conversation. With a ring on his finger and from casual conversations exchanged, it needn’t a genius to work out who this caller was. Almost instantly, it reminded the other men within the group to whip out their own Ziploc bags and check their phones.

The stench of unwashed bodies lingered. No one bothered about it as all and sundry smelled the same. It was the second day in the jungle and in between periods of waiting, the only thing that kept most men sane were the precious connection cradled in their pockets and wrapped in plastic to their beloveds. (For those who smoke, there was always that precious packet of ciggies tucked somewhere in their uniforms.)

It was “most” only because not all of them were married, much less him.

***

More than a decade ago when he was first wore jungle green, there was a body of water he had to cross each week twice. On an island a 45-minute boat ride away from civilisation, 30 young men huddled together in a longhouse which they came to know as a “bunk”. Mobile phones were banned then. In their place, a coin-operated phone outside each bunk represented each man’s connection to something close to nirvana.

Long queues would form each evening during the dinner break. Conversations were limited to five minute as anything longer would invite a torrent of “tsks” from the men behind, eager to hear the voice of their beloveds.

For him, there was no one. He could call the ex-sarong kebaya girl, but given they rarely talk at home, it would be most awkward. There were female friends, but a call every evening – even for five minutes – felt odd. So while 90% of the men took the opportunity to maintain their sanity in a sea of jungle green, he, like the rest of the 10%, indulged in idle chatter, a smoke or a pack of Ovaltine biscuits while pottering about in the longhouse.

Weekends were not-so-fondly remembered for the throngs of young ladies waiting for their men at Tampines MRT station or (for those who are desperately eager to see their beloveds) at the bus interchange. Hand-in-hand and arms-wrapped-around-arms, couples – one clad in jungle green and the other stealing ill-disguised, forlorn glances every now and then – they lingered at the mall, dined at the food court and whispered sweet nothing into each other’s ears. The reverse will happen on book-in days with throngs of females – some with tears in their eyes – bade their men farewell as they boarded the bus.

For the rest of the unfortunate ones (particularly those who lived on the other side of the world), Tampines represented the first and last stop of a long and quiet journey back to and from the warmth of their homes. Nodding off in the trains was a popular activity and so was ogling at anything that moved in a skirt.

***

The extent of which technology changed lifestyles could not be felt more than the fact that there were now fewer coin-operated phones in camps. There were no longer long queues either. Instead, with most of them wearing rings on their fingers now, it was common to see men lying on their beds, moving their thumbs frantically, or walking along the common areas with phones pressed onto their ears. For many of them, there is more than one beloved in their lives now, because kids and babies had arrived.

Despite the passing of time, effects of technology and different locations, some things didn’t change. Like the younger version of him twelve years ago, he still pottered about in the bunk while casting mildly envious glances at bunkmates who were engaged in conversations with their spouses, which he eavesdropped unwittingly.

His mobile phone remained in the locker. On vibration mode to ward off unwanted attention, it moved only when messages came in, informing him of this sales promotion or that attractive one-for-one offer from organisations (not even people) that mattered little to him.

And on weekends, there were no large groups of females waiting at the gates, MRT stations or at interchanges. Instead, a convoy of Mercedes, Toyotas and Nissans would zip out of the gates, carrying men who were just a few expressways away from going back to see their beloveds. For the small minority without cars or beloveds, it represented another long and quiet journey back to simply the warmth of their homes.

At a certain age now, anything that moves in a skirt no longer interest them as it did twelve long years ago.

I didn’t expect it but she kissed my hand. I didn’t know what compelled her to do it. After all, she’s not from the right generation or the right culture.

But she did. It was a loud smooch, and it came right after a long discussion about how no one visited her on her birthday.

I was stunned for a few seconds while she went on still mumbling about her quiet birthday and clasping my hand within her grasp.

I gazed at her eyes, which were too small for me to detect any hint of emotions from her. However, I remembered her face from years ago when I sat down beside her while she ate her dinner of cheap fish, vegetables and porridge. A tiny stream on a side of her face reflected whatever’s left of the light during dusk, one which she hastily wiped away when she thought I was not looking.

Bound by traditional beliefs, I knew that maternal grandchildren would never be favoured and I grew up experiencing all of that. As a child, I watched her taking out wads of money whenever my cousins – her paternal grandchildren – said they wanted to go out. As a child, I would smell the scent of freshly fried chicken wings from her kitchen and knew that I could only eat them after the rest of my cousins got theirs.

Her kiss on my hand undid everything. Almost bedridden, she could do none of those anymore. Yet, all that she could still, she did it for me with love.