Taking a step

“He what?”

Kathie exclaimed over the phone. Michelle recounted the weird incident in response calmly. She knew it would arouse her friend’s interest.

“Good heavens! They are everywhere, aren’t they? These mad people…”

Michelle interrupted with a question about meeting Kathie for lunch tomorrow, half hoping that it would distract Kathie from latching into one of her long tirades about Singaporean men.

“Sure!” Kathie agreed. “What shall we have? Oh wait… How was the rest of the day? Did you find out who took away…”

She stopped, realising that her curiosity resulted in a few seconds of silence.

“Gerald did it. It wasn’t so much of an admission, but more of him looking out for me.”

Kathie gushed. “Is it Gerald Ong? The guy from the other department? The same person whom we met at the coffee place the other night? He’s more than a nice chap. I’m sure you know that…”

“Right now, I want to focus on my work and spend more time with my family. This is what I want for my life now,” Michelle explained calmly. Sometimes she was amazed at how she could put up such a stoic front.

“I understand. Hey, we’ll talk more tomorrow over lunch. Maybe you’ll get a surprise from Gerald in the morning…”

Michelle sighed as she hung up her phone. Sometimes it would take a fair bit of effort to get things through to her friend, but Kathie had always been a loyal and kind friend whom she appreciated and treasure. It was her who spent the night at the hospital with her. It was her who cried with her as the doctor broke the news of his death. It was her from whom she sought solace, comfort and warmth during those dark nights and meaningless mornings.

She sat back on the red couch and observed the living room. It wasn’t too long ago that the television would be turned on with them cuddling together as they watched American TV drama series. She adored his after-shower scent and sometimes her finger would gently brush the stubble on his freshly shaved chin. The warmth of his body gave her the sense of security, that all is well in her world, their world.

Now, the home was silent. She couldn’t last 20 minutes watching the telly without thinking about him. Sometimes it seemed as though his presence was here with her. Closing her eyes, she could see him smiling at her, his eyes twinkling as he wrapped his arm around her and then, an occasional ruffle of her hair.

Silence enveloped her. She felt cold and isolated from the world. At the distance, she could pick out her faint reflection on the glass of the windows. A forlorn figure, still wearing her work clothes and sitting back on a couch which could fit two people comfortably.

It was the end of her first day in normalcy. Her assistant spared her the tedious task of ploughing through hundreds of e-mails which had accumulated in her absence. Her boss talked to her on a few occasions, making sure that she was fairly comfortable on her first day back and with the assurance that she could take her time in getting reacquainted with the work. Except for the weird incident, her lunch was uneventful and within 45 minutes of the break, she was back at her workstation reading documents.

She got up from the couch 15 minutes later and headed to her room. The gush of water from the shower head then broke the silence. The warmth of the cascading water comforted her. For the first time in weeks, there wasn’t the urge to break down and let loose her emotions.

Perhaps she had slowly come to terms of his sudden disappearance from her life. Perhaps this was her first step in moving on from the intense grief that she suffered.

As she dried herself, she gazed at her reflection – clearer now – in the bathroom mirror.

And she smiled.

The first of many

Enter Romero.

No, not Mr Shakespeare’s Romeo, but Romero.

How did Romero get his name? Even the man himself didn’t know. The usual explanation he offered to strangers and fresh acquaintances would be how he used to watch Brazil during the World Cup and thought Romario was a cool name. Somehow, being a teenager then, he spelt the name wrong, but from then on, it stuck with him.

Unlike his hero, he sucked at football. His only claim to footballing fame was being given the nickname of Lim Tong Hai (the Singaporean national player who was a famous defender during the halcyon Malaysian Cup days) by his mates in school. These days, his interest in football was limited to reading the news in The New Paper.

In the MRT train, Romero was your typical bloke – a graduate of the local education system and someone working for the dough. He had a few relationships in the past, but none of them went beyond three months. The girls would complain about how he would mutter under his breath whenever his precious Saturday nights were sacrificed for movies (which, according to him, could be watched on any other day), shopping (which bore him immensely) and dinner. Given the choice, watching 22 men chase a ball was the perfect way to spend weekend nights. Unfortunately, none of the other girls thought so.

At 28, he was anxious about getting into a relationship that could last beyond 90 days and without the girl asking for a breakup whenever Manchester United played.

“A soccer chick would be just perfect,” Romero Teo would fantasise to his colleague, Kieran Boh.

“They are few and far between lah,” Kieran would respond.

“It’s hard to believe that there aren’t that many,” Romero would argue. “Manchester United has the most fans! I’m sure many of them would be females.”

“Dude, you’re not Ronaldo. You’re Romero,” This was an effective way that Kieran would use to end the discussion.

At 12.46pm, our hero and Kieran were making their way back to the office. The hearty meal of flat rice noodles and pig offal was negotiating its way down Romero’s digestive system, just as he was negotiating his way through the office crowd.

“Your reservist how ah? Got mob…”

Before he could continue, he spotted someone and nudged his lunch companion.

“That one…”

Romero pointed. Kieran followed the direction of his finger.

“Out of your league lah. She’s carrying a limited edition Coach bag. Don’t think you can afford it,” Kieran tried bringing Romero down to earth. He had his reasons for doing so.

“Can try right?” Romero retorted but with his gaze still fixed on his interest. It was a woman walking forlornly, sipping a cup of juice, wearing a sharp black suit and tight skirt.

“You can’t afford limited edition stuff!” Kieran protested.

“I got a limited edition Manchester United jersey…”

“But you bought it during your last trip to BKK…”

By now, Kieran was alone. His colleague had made his way across the road.

Gosh! He’s embarrassingly desperate, Kieran observed as his friend started to approach the woman.

***

“Hello. I’m not trying to sell insurance. I’m trying to offer my friendship.”

Michelle was now startled by a bespectacled man wearing a cheap off-the-rack white G-2000 workshirt who popped out of nowhere and stopped her.

Before she could respond, he offered again.

“Can we become friends? Let me introduce myself, I’m Romero. Not Romeo, but Romero,” The man giggled.

It wasn’t the best of days for her to get freaked out, especially by giggling men.

“I’m sorry, but I do… do… not know you,” Michelle muttered and walked away.

“Hey… just friends only…” before he could finish his sentence, the man was whisked off by another man.

Michelle steeled her emotions. Absent mindedly she threw away the unfinished plastic cup of carrot juice and went back to the office.

***

“Are you crazy or what?” Kieran lashed.

“Sorry, emotions got the better of me,” Romero apologised.

“You’re embarrassing. Whatever happened to your resolve to date only soccer chicks? Which part of her suggests to you that she’s a soccer chick?”

“I don’t know. I feel like I have just this affinity towards… her… It’s like… I don’t know. I’m just attracted.”

“Do that again. The woman scream molest or harassment and you’re in deep shit. Let’s head back to the office. We’ve work to do,” Kieran advised.

Romero hung his head as he walked back to work with his colleague. Yet, there was something so special about this woman he met today that would keep him up till late that night.

***

Later that night, back in his room, Romero was engaged in some activity. It was physical and it required a lot of imagination from him. All of his attention was focused on it.

Now, despite how he was known as the “lamest of them all” by his uni mates, there was one thing they admired him for. If it were not for his mother’s expectations, he knew he could have chosen the Arts as a career. All throughout his teenaged years and young adulthood, he had no problems attracting the attention of the female species. It’s simply because he was gifted at drawing human faces or at the least, caricatures.

He was now trying to recollect the five-minute conversation he had during lunchtime with her. With deft strokes, he began to fill the sheet of A3-sized paper.

As much as it was strange and unexplainable, he knew he was smitten. As much as he had past relationships with females, somehow he felt this was special.

The morning after

It was the first day, the first morning. Uncharacteristically for a February morning, the sky was overcast. The dark clouds threatened a wet commute ahead.

She stirred in bed. It wasn’t the first time that the alarm clock failed to startle her. The room was almost silent, punctuated by each breath she took. She didn’t want to remember the last time she heard not just one set of breaths, but two.

She sat up, pulled the white sheets to her chest. As she looked out of her window at the far side of the room, she could see the branches of the tree – just next to her apartment – swaying and the leaves rustling. Inclement weather was imminent.

She daren’t look at the mirror. There had been far too many sleepless nights or hours spent drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet, she needed to look decent and not a wreck. In a few hours’ time, she would have to put up a front, something that the experts would say “the face of professionalism”.

Her sharp black suit and tight skirt hung on the wardrobe door. She gazed at it, trying to remember if this was what she wore when the news was broken. There was so much she wanted to forget, but these were also the same things that took away bits and pieces of memory she wanted to keep.

Slowly she walked to the wardrobe and gently, her fingers brushed against the fabric of the suit.

Then, the phone rang. This time she was startled.

“Hello Michelle. This is Kathie here.”

She greeted Kathie in a calm voice. The emotions had yet to rise from their slumber.

“It’s nothing really. I’m just checking if you’re alright there.”

A smile flashed on her face. She assured.

“That’s great. You know what, why don’t we lunch together? I can make my way down to your office and we could…”

She interrupted Kathie. As much as how she would have no idea how her first day back at work would turn out, she thought she wanted some time alone.

“You sure? It’s not a bother, after all, I need a walk…”

She rejected the offer again, but for the sake of it, suggested lunch tomorrow.

“That’s fine too. Give me a call if you need … anything… alright?”

She nodded and the call ended.

The phone was now on the dressing table. The hiss of water broke the silence of the room and the apartment. She then got dressed and did whatever she could to hide the symptom of the sleepless nights on her face.

Slipping into her favourite pair of black silletto heels and grabbing her handbag, she headed out. For now, she was pleased with herself. Everything seemed normal.

“Good morning Ms Cheng,” the security guard grinned as he spotted her.

She greeted the balding but burly Chinese man. There was this fatherly look on his face that she always found endearing. For a split second, she thought she had to share something with him, but held back. He might never get the answer to his question.

The office was silent. Her practice of starting her work day half an hour before everyone else did was a hard habit to break. As she walked to her desk, she was relieved that the things were left relatively untouched.

Except that something was missing. A mild panic was the trigger for the torrent of emotions to stir.

She sat down and buried her face in her hands. That all-familiar feeling in her heart began to make its presence felt. She knew someone must have meant well to put away the photo frame. Yet, the fact that it was missing now meant her morning routine was broken.

In another day and at another time, the photo simply reminded her of the precious relationship she had with a charming man who was her best friend and lover. It was the cue for her to fish out the phone from her bag and spend five minutes before work, talking to the love of her life.

The loss of the photo frame disrupted her morning routine of four years. Like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, she felt incomplete. At first, she could barely keep those emotions away, but the loss reminded her of the gaping hole in her heart.

By now, the torrents of emotions were unleashed. The image of the photo – that she would see every morning; of the both of them – played in her head, before dissolving into that one of him laying motionless, his body cold and his eyes – which once sparkled with life – closed.

The four-year-old union, which promised a love for eternity, ended prematurely. It so shocked her. She thought she could get over it. She thought heeding the advice of many about how life should go on would be relatively doable.

But the truth has started to sink in.

She knew she was way too young to be a widow.

She now felt fate had dealt her an unfair hand.

By now, tears had ruined her make-up.

Yet, they were now the least of her problems.

A perfect diet

It’s coming to a week and guess, I’ve embarked on this long road called “forget”.

The text message remains unanswered. I would reckon this would get me scoffed at for being less than chivalrous. Somehow I could not bring myself to congratulate you, as much as I know you will soon become the happiest woman on earth.

I still remembered you telling me about how you can’t see anything beyond commitment in a relationship. I took it as a probable subtle hint for me to back off because in all likelihood, you would have said this to any other bloke who came too close for your comfort. Perhaps that was a disguised attempt at getting me to back off because there was already someone infinitely bigger in your life.

The stings and the pangs of pain are less intense now. I’m getting by these days by slipping into the numb mode. I couldn’t care less about the hopes, the colours and the promises of life that were once so pronounced in the life of a youngish bloke. I slouch everywhere I go. I liken myself to the Tramp in those black and white silent movies. Every now and then, I see things that awaken those hopes almost momentarily before the stings appear. Everything dies down from there.

***

At 35, I am increasingly forced to find a place to draw the line between being that mature bloke that lasses looking to settle down would settle for and that expired bottle of shampoo which found its way at the bottom of some long forgotten bargain bin.

But funny enough, I’ve stumbled on a perfect plan to cut down the inches around my waist. I skip dinner these days. And at approximately 6.30pm, while all and sundry would be looking forward to a hearty dinner with their loved one(s), I would slouch, hunch and drag the feet all the way back home with a grumbling stomach. Oh, it would grumble and moan until the brief respite – in the form of a glass of low fat milk at around 9pm. And then, nothing, until the sun shines when the new day begins.

Somehow, I relished those grumblings. As much as how I could envision the acids tearing another thin layer of lining in that sodding bag in my body, it was enough punishment for the years of folly I’ve spent at many a buffet table

The results were somewhat pleasing. The boss said the shape of my face has become ”sharper” while a colleague whom I’ve not met since the week before Chinese New Year, commented that I’ve become “smaller”. Heh.

I’m resolved to let this continue, no matter how I face the prospect of visiting the doctor for gastric medication in the near future. It’s a price I’ve to pay. Perhaps, a foolish one too, given that I wouldn’t have any of those means to fulfill the Singaporean girl’s dream of the 5Cs (and even more).

But I’m happy to suffer this way. It’s ample punishment for the fact that I’ve missed one boat too many because of my gluttony ways.

***

A colleague came, observed the glum look on my face and concluded that this milk diet is crapping up my internal systems. She further deduced that it could have been the cause of all the melancholy.

In her bid to bring some cheer, she went back to her workstation and came back with a magazine (August 2008 edition). She flipped to the page and placed it on my desk.

“Here, read this,” she said. It was the story of some local indie rock chick and primary school teacher, who admirably went against all odds (including a battle with cancer). I looked at the photos of this rock chick, who peered back at me on the glossy pages. I looked at the poses she made, with her keyboard, dressed in some 30s or 40s fashion with a contemporary touch, and her dimples.

I spent five quick minutes reading about her story.

I picked up the mag, walked like a slouch back to my colleague’s workstation, and gently placed it on her table.

Before slouching, hunching and dragging my feet back to the cubicle.

I could feel how a part of me has died a long time ago and in truth, it would never be brought back to life. Barring a miracle, of course, but to me, miracles only exist in fairy tales.

***

They were now calling for volunteers to help distribute the tickets. It came in the form of a mass e-mail and the name they have chosen appeared in all its glory on the subject title.

I wonder the consternation it would cause them if I were to step forward and announce my availability to volunteer. Perhaps they couldn’t and wouldn’t stand the presence of the difficult, black, gloomy-faced, sub-standard, amateur-like-fuck scriptwriter who made everyone unhappy because they didn’t think of him when they decided to rename the production.

I heaved a sigh before logging out.

And End

It was at 4.45pm that a sudden thought hit him. He thought of her. His mind started putting together a collage of scenes and images of her, and of them spending time together, that it became like a running film. It was a rather short one though – lasting not more than 10 seconds – and it was enough for the last image to dissolve slowly before a perfect picture of her face came on.

***

It has been more than four months since they last spent time together. It was brunch after service and for the umpteenth time, they had Japanese food. He remembered them poring through the menu and asking questions of each other about what they would like to eat. The conversation over the bento lunch was enjoyable.

Yet, it was that time when reservations played in his head. She seemed a tad subdued this time round as though something was holding her back, he thought while driving out from the carpark of the shopping centre. She had refused his offer of a lift, stating she had some errands to run and (ironically) would want to be in time to watch the motor race with family and a glass of wine in her hand.

They parted ways and that was the last he spent hours of enjoyable time with her – nothing physical, attraction or otherwise. He just relished their conversations and the “their” time.

Then, there was an hour’s lunch when he happened to be near her workplace. Everything was just packed into less than 45 minutes. He wanted more but circumstances couldn’t allow it.

Then, there was a talk that she invited him to attend with her. There wasn’t much time for conversations (except for two short 15-minute breaks) and again, she turned down his offer of a lift. “Errands,” she said.

Everything came to a head when the briefest of an emotional rollercoaster ride ended many of his hopes. He saw her. His heart was lifted. And then, he saw him, again and again. It devastated him and he had to deal with the torrent of questions that lashed and swirled in his head for days to come.

***

At 11.55pm the same day, he absent-mindedly picked up his phone. There were mp3s to be transferred from the machine to the phone. The songs would fill the otherwise silent journey to and from work. His eyes lighted up for a moment when he recognised the name of the sender of a text message.

But rarely in this life of his do the moments of joy last extend beyond the shortest of permissible time for him savour and embrace it all.

“Hi [His name]. how’re you going? It’s been quite a while! Wanted to ask if you might be up to handing [name of a publication] for the next 2 issues? … [details of matters to be handled] … I ask because I’m getting married in Sep (this year). Let me know pls? Much tks. [her name]”

The lack of sleep usually enhances the downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. But he couldn’t be bothered by it then.

Simply because he was in a state of shock. He could almost feel his heart dropping off from a great height, and all of his emotions trailed off like a car going quickly down the rollercoaster track.

As the night fell fast, the truth sank in. Now his hopes were all but dashed. Miracles, in his world and now, belong in the land of fantasies, where unicorns co-exist harmoniously with Care Bears and Smurfs.

As he lay on his bed, he loaded up his twitter account, punched in a few words describing how he felt to the world out there (as though anyone would care to listen) and willed whatever’s left of his resolve to slip into consciousness.

His hope for joy could and would only be a pleasant dream.

And reflecting his life, this hope has been a very long time coming.

All he had to contend with was the empty screen inside his head.