To Know Someone

How do you really know someone?

How do you define knowing someone — really knowing them?

I can get all philosophical and try to tie this in with all the epistemology argument, but I’m too lazy to do it. Or I can get very joke-y about this and write about knowing someone in biblical sense. But I’m not feeling that cynical/satirical today.

How do you really know someone?

I don’t know the answer to this, but when my grandmother passed away, I felt like I never truly knew her. Though I don’t really know what it meant to know someone, I understand and felt it in my bones and in my veins that I did not know her.

A lot of people equate loving with knowing. It is tempting to do so, but what they don’t realize is that you can very easily love someone you never really know. When this happens it’s the idea of that someone that you love, not the person. This is the recipe for most of life dramas.

And then there’s hate. I think in some ways, hating a particular person is actually closer to knowing them than loving them. I always felt that hatred is such a singular, uncompromising, simple emotion when directed toward one other human being; while loving someone can take so many malleable forms and various manifestations… toxic love, pure love, filial love, romantic love, passionate love, dead love…hatred, hatred toward another is so unique. When you hate someone, you don’t take them for granted the way you do to the ones you love or claim to love. Hating someone requires effort, active participation, and aggressive, exhausting investment of emotion. In some ways I don’t fully understand, I believe that to utterly hate someone means to know them as well.

But then again, I never hated someone this much, so what do I know?

All I know was that my grandmother was the first and probably the only person to ever love me unconditionally. And I had taken her for granted. I had done so all my life.

I don’t know if my grandma had any dreams. I know she had regrets. Many. I didn’t put in the effort to knowing what those were, when she was alive. If I did, would that be enough to know her?  But there must be something more than just understanding another person’s regrets and dreams to actually know them.

She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a woman. She was always a woman to me. She represented everything I did not want to become, but at the same time everything I admired, too.

We slept in same room when I was younger. I used to wake up at night at the sound of her snoring. Ever since we scattered her ashes in the sea, I’ve been having some insomnia problems. Not every night, but some nights. Tonight might be one of those nights.

Also, I still don’t know how to make peace with the fact that I now have to type everything about her in past tense.

Did I fail her by not knowing her? I feel like I knew her enough to know that she would smile and answer “no”.

So, how do you know someone?

If I could anticipate what the other person is going to say in a given situation, do I know them, then? If I knew how to make them laugh? If I knew which movies will stun them, which songs will bring them to tears? If I knew all the childhood stuff they are embarrassed about and adult stuff they dread about? If I knew what virtues are important to them in life? If I knew their vices and their good deeds, if I knew whether they believe in God, if I knew what they thought about death… If I knew their fears and dreams and insecurities and successes and memories and hopes? If I knew what they think and feel about other people?

If I knew that they’d tell me something and end it with “I’ve never told this to anyone else before”?

Would that be enough?

If I knew when they are lying, if I knew when they are happy, angry, sad, disappointed.

If I knew whether they want to be known.

If I knew whether they want me to truly, deeply, fully know them. Would that be enough, then?

Is that how you can truly know someone? When nothing they do, say, think can surprise you anymore but somehow you still want to see, hear, feel them do, say, and think all those things? How do you know whether you even want to know someone? Whether you even should want to?

Here’s the scary thing. What if you truly, really know someone. And then you lost that person – you lost the person the same way everyone else lost someone: you lost them to death, or you lost them to life. When you lost someone to death, everything you know about them is preserved in the past, in memories. There was an end point where you stopped knowing more about them, but you still did truly know them.

Wouldn’t it be more tragic if you lost someone because life gets in the way? Stopped knowing someone because you lost them to life? Knowing that this person who leaves (or you left) continues to evolve, grow, change, to morph into another person you used to know but no longer do.

Have I ever really, truly known anyone? Will I ever?

How would I know if anyone knows me, at all? Will anyone ever?

 “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.

Julie Delpy, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset: Two Screenplays

The answer must be in the attempt.


 

It’s been a while.

Jumbled,

M

Ponder and Wonder in Shower #3

You know that worst Tetris block that everyone hates? Two rows, two tiles each row and only one tile per row overlapping each other. It rarely fits into anything and people just silently curse when they see it.

tetris worst block

I want to be this block.

Or I guess, more accurately, If I gotta be a Tetris block, I’d rather be the most unfitting, misshapen, different, cursed Tetris block than bend over backwards to fit in with other, more lovable, similar-looking blocks (nice straight-line or squares, for examples).

Wednesday Addams was right about what Tetris really was all about.

When you try to fit in, you disappear.


Jumbled,

M

 

Solo Trip, Stangers, and Taking Credit for ISIS’ Eventual Demise

Around the end of last year, I went for an impulsive solo trip to Hong Kong. Just for a few days, I thought. I hadn’t been there for quite a long time. Little did I know I would experience the city in its utmost weirdness or that I’d met some of the most beguiling strangers ever. Some people – you just don’t need to know them by names.

There was a handsome swimming instructor sitting across me at breakfast one morning. At one point in our conversation, I noticed him struggling to understand my English, so I was about to move on talking about a next topic.”No, no,” he said, “Repeat, please. I want to understand. I want to learn.”

There was an American investment banker working out in a park. He declared, “Nah, I love Chinese food in New York better.”

There was an old lady in a museum pointing out to me her favorite exhibition, a room with glass flooring, under which you can see countless broken pieces of Chinese ceramics. “Stand right here,” she whispered, “You are literally stepping on 500-year old Ming vases now.”

And then, there was the girl at the empty pier in Lamma Island. The ferry going back to city had just left; both of us missed it. Under the moonlight, she sat cross-legged, closed-eyed, at the edge of the boardwalk with a bouquet of flowers next to her. After few minutes of contemplating and preparing myself mentally for any backlash (you know, if she was crying or meditating), I decided that I needed to hear her story. What chains of events had brought her to sit on that boardwalk of that small pier on that particular night, creating a view so serene, enigmatic, and surreal?

She said of the flowers, “I saw an old man in the island today selling flowers. He was walking around with no shoes. I followed him around. Then I bought him (slippers) and I bought the flowers from him.” In that one sentence of hers I found an immediate difference between me and this stranger – the old man was in her field of vision. She focused her sight on him and took the extra step. Shame hit me as, truth be told, I saw that old man, too. But he was in my peripheral vision, as how people in need often are. As the saying goes, she brought back my faith in humanity.

We took the next ferry back to the city and she let me follow her to her secret spot on the esplanade. We lied down our backs and till past midnight discussed thoroughly about life, art, dreams, fears, feminism, history, religion, bucket lists, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, the Yellow Umbrella Revolution…

I kept a mental list of moments in my life which I deem Groundhog Day-worthy. This was definitely one of those. I wouldn’t mind reliving those hours on an infinite loop. (Maybe I’ll write about the other Groundhog Day-worthy moments some other times) Also, I have a favorite secret spot in Singapore now, but it was only after meeting her that I actively sought to find one.

The next day was the last day of my trip and she volunteered as my local guide. In one of our conversations after lunch, my new friend asked me if there is anyone I don’t like – friends, colleagues, anyone. I said, duh, yeah, of course sometimes other humans bring out the misanthrope in me. I thought she was just making a way into her venting out her own hated people or something. But then the conversation took a completely different turn and she revealed that there was a spot under some random highway reserved for a few old ladies performing cursing rituals. And she was taking me there.

Thinking back now, my first reaction was to let out a laugh of surprise. (Isn’t it funny that laughing is a reaction to many things that aren’t related to actually perceiving hilarity? Like yawning in dogs could be a sign of anxiety than drowsiness). I mean, going to a shaman to actually perform curse on an actual human being? It was totally absurd to the twentysomething me. Maybe it would be a good idea when I was eight years old and we all played the Pencil Game or tried to knock certain toilet stalls to bring out the urban-legend Boogeyman (Fun Fact: Indonesian version of Boogeyman, Mister Gepeng, directly translates to Mr. Flatface).

But I was game for almost anything when traveling and I was positive this kind of experiences would make for the best stories. When else would I have the chance to see this enchanting, mystical side of the skyscraper-packed Hong Kong? So I followed her to that under-the-highway curse shop.

Under the broad daylight, the place was a major letdown in the bone-chilling-atmosphere department. I could walk past this place thinking it only a congregation of street vendors selling some traditional Chinese incense and other prayers paraphernalia. Upon closer look, though, the ritual itself started to spook me. I could no longer recount the exact steps, but it involved writing the names of victims / recipients of the curse on some yellow papers (already full with Chinese characters and mantra), the old shaman lady chanting some curses while holding those papers and beating it repeatedly with a sole of shoe. She would then “fed” the papers into the mouth of a Tiger papier mâché and subsequently throw all those items into a fire, dramatically. With other sets of paper, the shaman would then lightly hit the body of the person who wished for misfortune of others, saying prayers for their good health, wealth, and strong familial relationship.

Unfortunately, my friend could not translate and explain to me the meaning behind each step of the ritual despite my constant probing. Still, the scene captivated me in its absurdness and the overall sensory stimulation.

It didn’t scare me, until the moment I noticed the other customers – a normal-looking crowd: giggling young girls in pink jeans, a tired middle-aged guy who looked like he worked in an office nearby, some housewives with their bicycles. And the horror struck me. These are the people I’d met on subway, on the street, in the park, in restaurants. In another life, these could be the strangers I met and enrich my travel experiences.

I looked at my new friend and tried to think what sort of grudge she could hold to discover this place in the first place. To whom? Or did she just stumble upon this place accidentally?

All the while I could not think of a single name to curse. Again, the whole idea feels childish and very negative. What good could come out of it? I personally don’t buy in these kinds of supernatural practices, but I wonder if those other customers really, really think they could handle the mental responsibility if something horrible actually happened. Confirmatory bias is real – if nothing happens, then nothing happens. But if in the off chance something does happen to the supposed cursed person, humans would have the tendency to attribute it to the shaman, wouldn’t they? Can they bear that burden? I know I can’t and don’t want to.

So when my turn came, I named ISIS. I wouldn’t mind if misfortune befalls on them. As a matter of fact, I’m taking credit now when the world eventually got rid of them. You heard it here first. (Well, it’s been about six months and they’re still at large.)

My new friend commented on my choice, “Ohh why, you’re too nice.” I think it is wrong to praise someone for not wishing misfortune to fall upon other humans. The absence of evil does not equate good. That modicum of decency should be the bare minimum of everyone’s life principle, I think. Each to his own, I suppose.

By the way, I never knew her full name until we said goodbye. She only told me to address her with a nickname, the same nickname she used for Facebook. I finally found out a few weeks ago, when we needed to make some bookings arrangement for our upcoming trip to Cambodia. Can’t lie – I’m expecting more stories to come out of it.

 

Jumbled,

M

 

 

Ponder and Wonder in Shower #2

There is one superpower which I think most people will think as useless / unnecessary / annoying but I would really love to have: the ability to survive without needing sleep.

I know fatal familial insomnia is fatal (duh) and I don’t want that form of forced, painful wakefulness. No, I don’t want to stay awake under such torturous medical condition. I do like sleep. Who doesn’t love to sleep? To shut off our eyes and drift off to total nothingness (or in case of dreams, another reality) and to wake up feeling refreshed? Sure, slumber is awesome, but I’d trade it off anytime with an additional 7-8 hours per day of life.

The recipient of my imagined superpower won’t ever have to succumb to drowsiness, but she won’t experience the health consequences of insomnia from which normal people suffer. She will be using the extra time nocturnally, peaceful in the silence among the asleep others. She will produce, she will work on all interests, plans, activities that she ever wants to but cannot find the time to. She will read, draw, paint, write, study, think, and enjoy life. She will be essentially older than everyone else her age, because for every extra hour in which her peers sleep, she consciously lives and learns and gains experiences by an extra hour.

Basically, all I want is more time in a day. While time-bending / time-traveling / time-pausing superpower may be a more obvious choice, as a concept it is too complicated and full of hidden potentials and scenarios for my poor brain. And it always, always, always comes with heavy responsibility and comeuppance to the wielder of said power. Due to laziness and half-humility, I feel like there are many others who are less selfish, more intelligent who are deserving of such power.

Meanwhile, for me to reach a level of selflessness and intelligence required to be actually deserving of wielding any forms of time-altering superpower, I need more time in a day to develop myself into a better person. How much more time in a day? Oh I don’t know, probably about 7-8 hours a day.

😉


Jumbled,

M

Ponder and Wonder in Shower #1

So, May the 4th is coming up and it is inevitable that we’re going to see countless Star Wars references. Which made me think. 420 the ‘Weed Day’ was just a couple of weeks ago. Hitler’s birthday was April 20th. There is obviously an epic joke there somewhere, but I can’t think of one. A friend suggested “High Hitler / Heil Hitler” but I don’t know… I thought the Internet could do better, you know what I mean? Haven’t come across anything so far.

Jumbled,

M

A Corridor Full of Doors

I sit cross-legged at the end of a strange corridor.

The wide corridor spans miles and miles and miles from where I sit, my eyes unable to see what lies at the end. Doors after doors after doors, on my left and right, made of magnolia, sandalwood, pine, and teak. Doors on the ceilings and doors on the chessboard-tiled floor. There are doors with broken knobs like those I’d seen in public toilets, doors broken to pieces like one I’d seen in Boo had in Monsters Inc., and Hobbiton doors shaped like perfect circles. There are those weirdly useless doors in taverns of Western spaghetti movies – the doors through which sheriffs made grand entrances. And the hinges of these doors make the worst noise.

All these doors keep opening and closing at such nauseating speed, allowing me to only catch glimpses of what lies behind each of them – snowy mountains, dirty cities, hospital beds, endless fields of sunflowers. To catch with my ears only snippets of conversations, verses of songs, trails of laughs and tears here and there. To smell only bursts of pungent spices, of sea, of incinerating trash, of a freshly bathed puppy. To feel on my skin the drops of rain, flakes of snow, breezes of wind that escaped these doors.

I feel paralyzed, my legs failing to stand up and walk down the corridor and wander closer into any of the door to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel more of what is behind. I feel as If I am ready to sit here at my end of the corridor, for all eternity, exhausting all my senses to catch all these glimpses, all these sensations.

And as I sit there marveled by the corridor full of doors, a cookie materializes on my lap. Written on its surface with icing is the easiest, simplest instruction imaginable in that situation: EAT ME. I take a moment to envy and respect that cookie, a something that knows exactly what it is, its purpose of existing, and what it wants happen to itself. That is, to be eaten. It states that in such a declarative, simple, no-nonsense, I-am-in-charge manner: EAT ME.

I obey and take a bite. Nothing happens. I continue to sit and think and think and think of which doors I should approach first, of how can I go back to enter other doors if I do not fancy the first one, of how I can remember which door I have entered, of how much time I need to spend behind one door before knowing that I need to get moving to another door…

And I sit there, planning and plotting and scheming for the best possible ways to enter all the doors I want to enter, like a mythologized butterfly fluttering in a mysterious algorithmic pattern to most efficiently sip nectar from flower to flower. Suddenly, it seems like the doors start to shrink and shrink and shrink… but I soon realize that it is me who is growing bigger and bigger and bigger.

As I sit there, my body gigantic and my eyes blurred with tears, I see the worlds, all the worlds behind the doors become less vivid and less real and less reachable and… more beautiful.

And I just keep crying and crying and the gallons of my tears drop and drop and drop on the chessboard-tiled floor, morphing into an ocean in which I finally drown, drown, drown.

 


If it wasn’t obvious enough, I just finished reading The Bell Jar and this post is inspired by / ripped off / emulated from that sad, sad, oh so sad passage with the fig tree. 

I recently went to a temple in Bagan, Myanmar, called Ananda Temple which had four different ‘main’ Buddhas for each cardinal direction, the local guy told me each was made of woods of different trees – sandalwood, magnolia, pine, teak. Somehow I wanted the doors to be made of those, because each represent different cardinal direction. (Unfortunately, I was frantically jotting the info down and now couldn’t recall nor read my handwriting about which type of wood was intended for which direction).

And somehow Alice in Wonderland got thrown in the mix.

In addition, I was on bus for about 10 hours today (not willingly but also not unhappily), so I had the luxury of time to read, write, and think. I hadn’t had that for about a month, it feels good.

Jumbled,

M

A Bone to Pick with You (Short Story)

This story would be weird if you haven’t seen my other short stories “The Cave” and “The Disgraced Ringmaster” (links down below). The inspiration to write this comes from this prompt I found recently: Have the main character in your novel (or short story) write a letter to you. What would they say? Have them write whatever you want.

Good morning, Ma’am, Mr.P here at your service. Look here, the last thing I want to do is to mess up your weekend. But seeing that I’m the first real character you’ve ever created, I think I deserve at least one interruption. I got a bone to pick with you, okay? And it’s not even about me, you know? All I’m saying is that you have got to do something about this guy I just met at the desert, because he’s freaking DYING.

I mean, I got plenty to complain about with my own life. The fact that I am not complaining now should tell you how serious this chap’s condition is. In case you don’t know who I’m talking about, it’s on you. I don’t know his name. You left him in such critical condition that he can barely say anything. The stupid child next to him is as fearful as my old circus crew. He’s just there bawling his eyes out. He didn’t dare to leave his dad alone to ask for help. Can you imagine his horror, Ma’am? Watching his father dying like that?

You probably wonder how the hell I found this dying guy or how did I even get to a desert. Well, after that rainy night you left me in that dirty alley, all beaten up, I got up and went to get some more liquor. (Again, Ma’am, not complaining, I did deserve to be punched every now and then). But then I had no money, as you didn’t let me take the cash that kind bartender offered me. So these crowds got pissed off at me for not paying for my alcohol and they chased me! I had to run all the way to the train station and hop on the train to save my neck, Ma’am. I became a stowaway. It made me laugh when I realised that because most of my circus crew used to be stowaways, too. That was how I recruited them.

Anyway, I must have slept for a really long time. When I woke up, the scenery from outside train had changed drastically. Too much sand for Mr.P’s liking, Ma’am. (Why did you name me that, anyway? A letter? I mean, even you let me named Richie with a full, normal name. Again, not complaining.) I gotta thank you here, though. The oasis town where I hopped out of the train had an amazing tavern. Their local drink was amazing. Again, I forgot I didn’t have a single penny on me. Doubt they’d take any money I had anyway, this place was certainly foreign.

So I ran away again. I thank you for my legs, at least. They’re strong enough from my circus heydays. Soon I realised the sound of my chasers fading, and I was alone in the middle of a desert. What a world you had in your head, Ma’am. It was wild. I don’t want to question you, but I hate that you chose to have this place. It was so hot in the day and so cold in the night. I was just going to rest in a cave I saw. Guess what – that’s where you left this man to die.

Ma’am, again I must implore you here to either save this man or just kill him straightaway. The kid just told me they had been in that cave for close to twenty one days now. TWENTY ONE DAYS! That is insane. I may have caused people to die from that accursed explosion, but I don’t torture them this way! Ma’am, I think something must have gone wrong with your story for this man. Maybe you intended this man to die straight away or something? Either way, he’s not dead. I can tell he’s poisoned. His skin is kind of purple now, with all the veins showing. He is foaming from the sides of his mouth. God! He’s alive but not living. Do something, Ma’am. Do something, please. I cannot see another life suffering like this. He had the same black, big eyes as Richie.

I promise you I’ll swear off alcohol altogether. Do something. There is a child here who doesn’t want to move at all from his father’s almost-corpse body. He hasn’t eaten for three weeks! Ma’am, can’t you do something for these poor people?

Wait. Unless… You put me here to do something? To save them? But, how?

Okay Ma’am, write to you again soon. I must be still drunk after all, I am hallucinating hearing this snake approaching me, speaking!

In the meantime, you know, think of something. Help these guys.

 

Your firstborn,

Mr.P

 


Click here for the original stories:

https://ajumbledrealism.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/the-cave-short-story/

https://ajumbledrealism.wordpress.com/2016/02/14/the-disgraced-ringmaster-short-story/

Yours truly,

M

Five Senses (Short Story)

Instruction: Write a three-paragraph description of a person or a place. Show the reader what it looks like, smells like, feels like, sounds like, even tastes like.

It is not entirely pleasant. One moment I am safe and warm in the dark, and the next moment all I can feel was a sensation akin to having someone tearing apart the canals of my ears. Every single sound is suddenly amplified to a decibel level ten times higher than what I was used to. This is disconcerting since in the past few months, I have grown accustomed to living in the warm spherical room and its soundproof walls, all voices from the outside muffled. Panic grows in me. I can almost feel my eardrums beating faster by the second, matching the accelerating beat of my heart. Luckily, I find her voice among the many sources of sounds engulfing me. Her familiar, calming voice is more melodious with the soundproof walls no longer separating us.

But for a few horrible seconds, the cold of the outside pierces mercilessly through my naked skin, almost convincing me to crawl back to where I was, where warmth was. It doesn’t last long. As soon as she touches my wrinkly skin, a wave of warmth jolts through my body like electricity. She runs her fingertips all over me; rubbing my cheeks, caressing my head, wrapping my arms. I become aware of the very inch of my body only when she touches it. Her touch activates me, awakens me, but her smell is what brought me alive. My nostrils dilate as I greedily inhale her intense odor. At this time, my repertoire of fragrances is too limited to liken her smell to anything else. But I doubt any metaphors or analogies will ever do her scent justice. There is simply nothing else that smells the way she does. She smells like life.

Suddenly, I feel wet. Droplets of water fall on my cheeks and forehead. Her tears? They roll closer onto my gaping lips and enter my mouth. The taste of her tears on my tongue startles me. It is bitter, salty, and foreign. It scares me. I open my mouth wider and let out a loud cry. My tears prompt me to separate my eyelids and finally, at last, there is sight. Before sight, I see only brightness, so blinding and alien to the pitch blackness of the room. But now, I see. I see her. She is a combination of blurred bright and dark dots that slowly form into a shape. Slowly, I distinguish the contour of her face, eyes, and then her mouth – a hazy, curved line spanning across her face from cheek to cheek. Both ends of that foggy line are pointed upward. A smile.

Because I am born.

 


 

Jumbled,

M

 

Four Train Stations (Short Story)

Instructions: Observe other people’s behavior in public place, especially odd or intriguing acts. Create a character and put them in this place, give them two traits: a behavior you observed and a negative trait about yourself. Now, write 300-600 words describing the character in the context of the place without writing anything directly about the character. In fact, write as if the character is not even present at the place during the time you’re writing it. Try to allow the reader to discover both of the character’s traits indirectly. This assignment is about implication, about leading the reader to see the character without directly describing him/her.


 

As the train doors open with a mechanical sound, a familiar pungent smell creeps into my nostrils. Durian. I looked up irritably to get a view of the offender to my olfactory system.  The sole suspect just stepped in, a massive middle-aged man perspiring through his armpits. He heaves breathily as he slumps into the seat directly opposite me, carelessly tossing a big black plastic bag containing the awful fruits in the adjacent empty seat. He unwraps a Big Mac burger, swallows ravenously and finishes it just within the time the train needs to reach the next station. He then reaches into his trousers pocket to take out a palm-size black metallic object.  It takes me a full second to realize that it is a cellphone. I mean, that thing still has buttons.

I keep my gaze at him, feeling amazed as I witness him holding the cellphone with his left hand and then pushes the buttons with his right hand’s chubby index finger. Who does that? He does not seem to notice my voyeuristic stare at all until the moment he presses the phone on his ear and tilts his head up. Luckily, at that moment the train reaches Lavender Station and some new passengers walk in. I divert my gaze to them – a ponytailed woman with huge headphones, a sleepy-looking dude in blue scrubs, and a skinny boy carrying a guitar. Anyone of them is a much more welcomed view than this obnoxious uncle.

My nose starts to get used to the durian smell by the time we reach the next station. I start to ignore the Durian Guy, until a loud “Hey!” comes from his direction. It startles me and by reflex I turn my sight to him again. He was talking to his phone. “Hey, darling!”

Scanning the other passengers, I immediately feel surrounded by faces with irritated look. A plump woman with a baby sleeping in her arms frowns deeply. She makes an approaching gesture toward the Durian Guy.

“Yes, I’m still in office now,” everyone within earshot can hear the Durian Guy says, ”I’ll need to run to a meeting soon.”

The woman with the baby stops her movement and I see her expression changes from irritation into interest. The ponytailed woman pulled down hear headset, subtly. I smirked. I feel my earholes widening too.

“Oh yes, yes, darling,” the Durian Guy continues to talk loudly, but nobody seems to mind it now. The dude in scrubs has fully opened his eyes now.

“You know how I always need to work overtime for this client. Yes. What, Aaron? Now?”

Durian Guy’s sudden panic expression brings joy to my heart. No longer grinning, his eyes roll quickly around the car, as if looking for an answer to give the person on the line. Durian Guy lowers his voice, “Uh, why you wanna talk to him now? I told you we’re going to a meeting soon.”

I feel the train decelerating and realizes we’re reaching City Hall Station soon. I bet the Durian Guy senses this as well, because he quickly yells that he needs to: “run to the meeting now and bye, bye, darling, I love you,” – as if fearing the person on the line will hear the sound of the train’s PA system announcing the next station.

He collects the bag of thorny fruits, raises from his seat and alights off the train car quickly. Too bad the Durian Guy was only on the train with me for four stops. Now I’ll have to sit through another ten boring train stops before reaching home.


I wrote this story with Singapore in mind, but wanted to make this as broad as possible to apply to other cities’ trains, too.

Just some fun facts: In Singapore, you can get fined for drinking or eating on bus / train, unless you do it sneakily. The last time I check, durians are still prohibited on trains, too. Also, these aren’t key to the story, but I thought it’d be fun to share my thought process: Four train stops before City Hall station is Aljunied station – the closest one to Geylang area, a famous red light district. Best durians in Singapore can be found there, too.

 

Jumbled,

M

How You Solve a Problem, Like Maria (Short Story)

The sky started raining the very moment Maria stepped on the ground floor. Maria sighed as she climbed up the stairs back to her room to get her umbrella. It had not even been full two hours since she woke up, but Maria felt like she was at the end of a long day. Her emotional state that morning had transformed from elation to disbelief, to confusion, to sadness, and now to irritation.

As Maria snatched her umbrella from the windowsill, she saw through the misty window her bus approaching the bus stop across the street. She panicked and immediately dashed toward the door and slammed it. As she skipped down the last flight of stairs, she realised she had forgotten to lock her apartment’s door. Angry at herself, she decided against going back up and convinced herself that having nothing worth keeping equals having nothing worth stealing, too. I must text George to lock it, thought Maria, Oh, no! He worked overtime yesterday, he will sleep until noon. I’ll better call him.

George. George had always been in Maria’s life as long as she could remember. He taught her to put the thermometer on flashlight to fake a fever. She taught him how to whistle. He was there when her father went into coma after mercury poisoning. She was there when his mother gave birth to a stillborn sister. Both tragedies could be traced to every drop of toxic chemicals dumped by the gigantic factory residing in their hometown.

They went to high school. They dated. They became adults and moved in together.

Maria almost slipped and fell when leaping on the bus. She exhaled, relieved that she would make it in time for her class. When she slumped into an empty seat, she realised she was drenched. In her haste to chase the bus, Maria had forgotten to use her umbrella. She cursed audibly.

“Miss Rainer!” a syrupy voice startled her, “You said a bad word!”

It was Maria’s student, a ponytailed girl who often took the same bus as Maria to the kindergarten. Maria had asked her parents several times, rather accusingly, as to why they would let a five-year-old ride the bus alone, regardless how close the kindergarten was.

“Oh, Liesl, good morning,” said Maria, patting the empty seat next to her, “Come sit here.”

Liesl hesitantly moved closer to Maria. “Sorry you heard me cursing,” Maria smiled, “I had a bad start of the morning.”

“That’s okay,” Liesl grinned widely.

“Not entirely okay,” Maria quickly added, “You should not follow my bad example, promise me.”

Liesl winked, “Okay, Miss Rainer.”

Maria patted her head lightly. They sat in silent for a while before Liesl took out a coloring book from her backpack and started flipping the pages. Maria took this opportunity to take out her cellphone to call George, gave up after ten rings went answered, then texted him. As she saw his photo next to his name, one of her earlier emotions came rushing back. A pang of inexplicable sadness hit her.

Tonight, George will propose to her.

She found out accidentally. Waking up too early, Maria suddenly wanted to wear her old mustard-colored dress for their date night. She grabbed a flashlight and went to storeroom to find a box of her old clothes. When she turned on the flashlight, she noticed the strange way the light beam shot, as if there was an object inside the flashlight blocking the bulb.

It was a ring.

George must have really run out of place to hide it.

Disbelief. Confusion. And inexplicably, sadness.

“Miss,” Liesl’s voice brought her back to reality, “What are we doing today? Because it’s raining.”

Maria almost cursed again. She had promised the kids to spend sometime in the playground and sandbox today.

“Hmmm,” Maria frowned slightly, “I know! What do you think about watching film instead?”

They will sit in silence and I have some time for myself. To think.

“Great!” exclaimed Liesl joyously, “Which film? Can it be cartoon, please?”

“Sure, why not,” Maria answered, “What about Beauty and the Beast? We haven’t watched it in class.”

Liesl, frowning and pouting her lips, said, “I hate Belle.”

Huh, that’s new, thought Maria. “Really, why? Doesn’t she love books, Liesl? Just like you.” She let out a little laugh when she looked at Liesl’s coloring book, “You even have Beauty and the Beast coloring book.”

Liesl concentrated hard and finally explained, excitedly, “Hmmm, I don’t fully hate Belle. I hate her at the end. I like her at the start when she go around town and sing and like get the book from the old man and Gaston was like, I will marry Belle but no, she wants adventure.”

“I see,” agreed Maria, almost giggling, “But what’s so bad with her at the end?”

“Belle didn’t get her dream at the end,” Liesl said confidently, “Cinderella and Snow White and Aurora want to marry and they get it. And, Ariel, she wants to be human. But Belle, she doesn’t want adventure anymore, she even sings it! She says her dreams were childish or something. She gave up. I hate her.”

Enthusiastically, Liesl opened her coloring book and pointed out how she had colored all Belle’s gowns in blue instead of yellow, including the famously yellow big gown. “Because when she was wearing blue, she still wants adventure,” Liesl smiled, “Oh look! We’ve arrived.”

Maria was speechless throughout the walk from bus stop to their classroom.

As she let the children watched Aladdin, she checked her email and opened the first one that she had seen that morning: a congratulatory email from a university across the country, accepting her into their law school with full scholarship. Elation. Elation like never before.

Her mind drifted back to the memory of her hometown. Her father, being comatose for too long, lost his job. Her friends going to college.  A group of environmental lawyers, showing up too late. The ongoing lawsuit. Her childhood dream.

Maria closed her eyes and made her decision.

That evening when she and George went out, Maria was wearing a new navy tube dress instead of her old mustard-colored dress.


 

I took the characters’ names from Sound of Music, just for the fun of it. March being a Women’s History month and all, I got reminded at how cringe-y I feel now, in my adulthood, when I listen to some of the musical’s less-feminist songs. (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen” was the major offender. Of course, I sang to the tune countless times as a child)

And I intended this story to center around a woman, thinking and weighing and making an important choice. I think Maria in SoM was supposed to embody free spirit and finding her own happiness. But given the period she existed and the prevailing gender notions then, her happiness, her adventure, was defined solely by eventual her marriage to the Captain. (“Gone are your old ideas of life. The old ideas grow dim. Lo and behold you’re someone’s wife. And you belong to him. You may think this kind of adventure, never may come to you.”)

She’s so similar in this regard to Belle in Beauty and the Beast: (“And I– I never thought I’d leave behind. My childhood dreams but I don’t mind. I’m where and who I want to be. No change of heart. A change in me)”. What’s with this notion in the past that a woman’s idea of adventure changes shape completely upon marriage? And typical adventures in faraway places or whatever were dismissed as ‘childhood dreams’?

I deliberately left the ending vague. I like to think multiverse-style: in one, she rejected George’s proposal; in another, they work out a long-distance marriage / prolonged engagement and her studying; in another, George moved; one universe has Maria postponing her enrollment. Whatever it was, I like to think that her choice will matter, the conversation she’ll have with George will be mature and respectful, and her dreams will not be undermined.

That’s my kind of happy ending.

 

Jumbled, sleepy, and yours,

M