Black and red

I was halfway through the plate of Indian rojak when he came into full view. Bald and bespectacled, he was pushing a cart, which is a common sight at food centres and coffeeshops. The difference between him and the many cleaners I’ve seen was the way he walked. Taking very small steps at a time, it suggested that he might have suffered a stroke. Yet, on a muggy evening, he was doing his honest day of work, cleaning tables and clearing the plates spoilt Singaporeans like me leave behind without any thought about the thankless task.

For a while, I couldn’t finish the rest of the food before me – fried fishcake, beancurd, prawn fritters and egg fritter. My stomach started to churn at the sight of that old man, reaching for a plate on the table because it would probably be an effort if he were to walk over to the other side instead. Slowly, he deposited the remnants of food into a compartment by the side of the cart and then took out a piece of rag to wipe the table. Then, he collected a stack of plates from the cart and with the same small steps, akin to a toddler who has just learned how to walk, he headed for one of the stalls. At least the stallholder gave him a gentle pat on his back as he bent down to deposit the plates in one of those plastic buckets. Then, it was back to the cart and the next table…

I watched the entire scene without taking another bite of the food. He could have been someone’s father, my mind reminded. Of course, there was some voice that countered that thought. It argued about how this man could have done some evil deed in his life when he was younger. Perhaps he was once a serial womaniser which prompted his family to abandon him to his own devices. Perhaps he committed some terrible crime which caused his family so much embarrassment that he had to be disowned. Perhaps he had no other choice…

But these arguments were promptly drowned out by a single thought. It was that of what my emotions would be if it was my father in his place, a stroke victim slogging on a muggy night just to earn his keep. How would I feel? How could I possibly ingest another morsel of food knowing that an elderly stroke victim would be clearing my plate long after I’ve vacated my seat?

I thought about life. Then, I thought about this sin-cursed world. I thought about the many unjust things and issues that I read about, watched or experienced. I thought about the vileness of men. I thought about the vindictiveness and cruelty human beings were capable of throughout history, recent or otherwise. I thought about where this society was headed that some of us have become “immune” to such sights and more. I thought about the two-year-old girl who was left alone to die while 18 people walked nonchalantly past her and that it took a lowly rubbish collector, the 19th, to care enough. I thought about the excesses of this world. I thought about the protests that erupted. I thought about gaps which we know exist but never care enough to bridge them. I thought about the growing need for healing to come into our modern society, our super-wired-up society, where the technology might have brought us closer in minds but not our hearts or spirits.

I thought about the words of an ancient Chinese philosopher. I juxtaposed them with my thoughts.

And then, I realised where those dark, foreboding thoughts of mine originated.

***

I watched as he almost apologetically and sheepishly explained himself. It only occurred to all in the room later that there was one very important thing he omitted in his explanation.

When he was subtly and tactfully exposed, it didn’t take much for the red mist to descend.

He had insulted art. In one fine swoop, he not only disrespected himself and his craft but he insulted those who sacrificed for the sake of wanting to create for art. There were people who, ditched their careers and plunged into the unknown – living hand to mouth sometimes, because they wanted to pursue the arts. They felt that they needed to be real to themselves, rather than being stuck in a dead-end job while habouring unfulfilled dreams of “I’ve always wanted to do something else.”

But there he was, given a shot (albeit the final one) that many envied. Disregarding the opportunity and the amount of blood, sweat and tears of others, he submitted a piece of slipshod work; he didn’t even care to go through it to remove the most obvious piece of inconsistency.

In the end, five others – at his beck and call and some of the most talented people in the room, wasted six hours in putting up something that was, in essence, a lesson that he shouldn’t have to learn but was now taught.

It was an insult, but also a wake-up call for me. That I should be mindful that I should never do this to trample on something that not I love and yearn to pursue, but in the hearts and minds of others too.

COD IV: A record to break

Dear P,

We spent six hours together on Saturday. If it wasn’t you who went into a bit of a panic after I told you that one of this season’s biggest football matches was on and I had intended to watch it, it would have been extended till God knows when. But it was all for the better because there’s only so much we can talk about for six hours before the lengths of awkward silences increase.

It was nice of you to give me a lift home so that I managed to watch the match 12 minutes into the first half. More importantly, you did not mutter a “tsk” when you learnt that I was one of those blokes who may push everything aside just to watch a game of footy. But I took note of your declaration about how boring the game was to you. That’s something worth thinking about for the future. (And it also means that the idea of watching a match with you at a pub may not be the best of dates.)

So we finally shared a bit about our families. It’s not at the stage where the dirty linen gets aired. Yet. But it’s nice to get some insight into the people whom you have spent a long time with and about the people who love and nurtured you. Just to be fair, I was conscious about sharing enough of me although the tendency there is for me to clam up a bit more. I believe both of us are still skirting around each other, taking very cautious steps before sticking our toes into the water. Yet, the comfort level is slowly being lowered as we go deeper into understanding each other.

Through you, I have a clearer picture now of an ideal mate. I’ve realised, more than ever, that I need someone who could accept me for who I am (warts, sores, lesions, boils and all) and complement me in this journey through life. I need someone who can show me my blind spots and gently steer me towards our goals in life. I need someone who is probably wiser than I think I am; someone who can spar with me intellectually; someone who can challenge my ideas – not so much as to tear them down, but to help me improve so that I become more confident of them; and someone who shares my vision of how we can build each other up and / or a family together.

We’re coming to the stage of this friendship when we know that both of us are here for each other. Every step we take and every conversation we make take us a step closer to becoming a couple. I am a little surprised at how certain reservations and concerns of mine simply melt away whenever we chat. They have not been completely resolved, because it would take time for us to work things through. I see these coming; as obstacles that stand between us and that long-term commitment. But I hope this confidence – about how we’ll be able to work things through together – isn’t a false dawn. It grows whenever we spend time together.

When the right time comes, I, as the man in this relationship, will pose the question. It’s not about the alignment of stars; it is about the right comfort level for us to take the plunge and work our ways towards making that life-long commitment, which will be legal binding. I won’t want this to be a frivolous thing where we make declarations – that could affect each other’s life – nonchalantly.

Not sure under what circumstance we will break this six-hour record, but I hope you, like me, are enjoying this little journey together.

With love,

D

 

CoD III: Goodbye and before hellos

There was her goodbye email. Tomorrow, only thoughts of her would linger in his mind. Sure, there will be bits and pieces of her in the cubicle that she would be vacating, but there remains a slight tug in his heart to see her go.

But people move on in life. He knew that the stuff she would have to deal with at the new place could be many times more challenging. He wished he still had her youth, years ahead of her to plan her career. For him, there were just dead ends and wrong turns.

***

Her departure could help him focus on the things that were more important. For one, things between him and her were beginning to pick up. It has got to the point where he had the confidence that she was merely holding out for him to ask that question and they would be set.

Yet, he was hesitating, which may mean that she had to wait with possibly tons of questions flooding in and out of her head.

Social status was one. He had reservations about this one with the images – of how she would react to the vast differences in their rooms – playing in his head. “I love my queen-size bed!” was an exclamation of hers that he found it hard to forget. The issue of pay could well be a subplot to this. Only in this materialistic and social-conscious place that they happen to be born in…

Then, there was religion. It might not be an issue if he hadn’t felt that piece of longing when he watched throngs of people walking to the church. The first thought was “I used to be one of them” before a voice suddenly chirped in his head about how it wasn’t too late for him to turn back. He knew that his faith might be in shreds but the belief was still intact. He could go back, but he wasn’t sure how things would pan out between the two of them, especially with him holding onto the belief that a supportive spouse was extremely important for things to work out.

For now, he suspects that both of them are just revelling in and enjoying each other’s attention to think about the issues that lie ahead. He will only know for sure if and when the time would come for him to take that bold step and move into his first proper relationship.

He knows that he has to lead but hopes she is willing to wait till he sorts his thoughts out.

Chronicles of dating II: Buds, demons and battles

Empathy is one of the greatest and most underrated currencies of mankind, but also the most easily despised and almost never traded equally.

***

When he opened his eyes, the room was darker than usual. The mystery was solved a few seconds later when he heard the sounds of raindrops.

The night has passed uneventfully. No recollection of a dream (probably) meant that it got played out from beginning to end. In other words, his rest was complete and uninterrupted.

He got up. Holding his head in his hands, he felt relieved. The worst was over and a fresh new day for him was just about to begin. That is, until the relief gave way to anxiety.

He wasn’t sure if the shrink saw this coming. He was taken aback when they pressed a small bottle of blue-and-white capsules in his hand. He thought he had seen the last of them.

But it was too much for him to handle yesterday. He was close to breaking point. He could call for help, but no one would understand the situation enough to offer a hand. And he doubted she would too.

As he got on with the morning routine, thoughts filled his head once again. Some of them brought about intense emotions. Some raised his anxiety levels. Almost none were comforting thoughts.

And as he left the house, there was this overwhelming sense of despair over how this life, his life, was meant to pan out this way.

***

Dear P,

The conversation, over text, last night was possibly the longest we had in our fortnight-old relationship as friends who are looking for love (to fill our now-separate hearts). I need some time to adjust from typing on a normal keyboard to a palm-sized keypad. I’m just amazed at how easy it was for you to chat on Whatsapp.

I think things are easing naturally when we begin to share in each other’s emotions. So, when you were telling me about the pleasant news you received (which made your day, in contrast to mine), I felt happy for you. My spirits were lifted, even if it was only for a few moments.

Like me, I hope you are enjoying this. Like me, I hope a silly smile appears on your face whenever you check your phone every few minutes. Like a little bud, maybe something is blossoming nicely. We will need to work at it to make it grow nicely. I believe you know that love needs work from both parties.

At the same time, there are doubts, growing ones at that, in my head. I see road blocks ahead and as much as I won’t want you to, there may be times when your hand is needed for us to climb over them. I’ve learnt not to dump stuff on others. I don’t want to trouble others. So, the last person I want help from is you. It’s not a male pride thing. It’s a learned behaviour and I’m still learning how to deal with this.

There are storms raging in my life now. I’m trying to find something, someplace to shelter me from the pelting rain, protect me from the lighting and thunder, and give me some calm. They have become more pronounced recently. It’s unsettling and I don’t want these things to unsettle you.

The problem is they rarely dissipate. It’s like a series of them sometimes and I feel like the insides of me are no different from Jupiter. Sometimes, I wish I can rise above all of these and get to a level or spot where I can begin to fully appreciate the sunshine. Perhaps, with you.

I don’t want our relationship (if we ever get to that stage) to become an extension of your job. I don’t want to become your pseudo patient. I know that you have drawn some lines and made some choices; I don’t ever want you to cross them. I’d rather suffer in silence, battling those age-old demons of my life than having you see how they have been trying to tear me apart.

But away from these battles, your strength and support, even if they were to be silent but firm, will be enough for me to keep them at bay. Yet, at some point in our journey, I recognise the fact that you can choose to stay or leave.

These are just some stuff I see ahead of us. For now, let’s just enjoy watching this little bud grow. It could die on us tomorrow, but for what it’s worth, I hope you’ll, we’ll cherish the present.

Sincerely,

D

Chronicles of dating

Dear P,

You have now entered my life and I in yours. While it was arranged, I wouldn’t want to think that, if anything happens, we will think or value any less of how Fate brought us together.

Perhaps many would consider this juvenile. However, you probably have no idea how much change I’m slowly introducing to my life since we met. Even before you gradually make you way to the centre and heart of my life, you have made indelible marks. I would love to see the expression on your face if and when you learn about the magnitude of these changes one day.

I am still learning about you, which explains the amount of questions I asked. I am also trying to feel my way around your quirks, personality and habits. I wasn’t sure if you enjoyed the dinner we had over the weekend. I hope you did, even if you couldn’t finish the bacon pasta (which, in my mind, was more delish than my crab in pink lobster sauce linguine).

I guess it’s a twist of fate that you chose that day for our second date. It could have been a quiet and unceremonious passing of yet another day. I would have loved to see the expression on your face if the truth was revealed to you, assuming you are one of those “normal” people, who were not scarred by traumatic or tragic birthdays during their childhood.

When we met two weeks ago for the first time, we sat at the Japanese restaurant sipping and talking over roasted green tea for three hours. And we left only when the empty seats around us made us feel uncomfortable. This time, we clocked four hours together, allowing time to fly past us. I didn’t even care too much about how my favourite team was doing in the Merseyside derby.

So there we were, perched on high stools and sipping our beverages (you had some strawberry thingy while I had some lychee-mint concoction), talking (mostly) about how you have stumbled on a profession which was more “cast iron” than mine. As the night wore on, I picked up stuff about you and little by little, piece by piece, the bigger picture about “possibilities” becomes clearer.

I liked the fact that you’re talking more than I did that night. It may not be fair for you, but this great barrier I have erected over the years may need a bit more time and work before it topples. Perhaps your profession would provide you with some tools on how you can get me to talk more about myself, if you so wish. In time and if our stars continue to be aligned, you may just find a workaround.

Right now, I am unsure if you are okay with our sporadic correspondences during these non-face-to-face times. I would have preferred them to be higher in frequency, but I shall play along.

But I take it as a positive sign when you initiated a movie date later this week. Maybe you just want us to spend time together without me asking you too many questions. Of course, the movie will shut me up and moreover, I’m not one of those irritating amateur movie commentators. We’ll see where this little adventure takes us and how far we can go with this.

Sincerely,

D