What would it be like to die? I wonder if it might be similar to being born, to coming to life. Nobody truly knows what it feels like to breathe air for the first time, to cry, to hear, to have a soul. Do we have souls? When do our souls enter our body? Upon our first breaths? So, then do our souls leave on our last? What would it be like to make that escape, to slip away in a sigh, to float out into the air, to become unequivocally a part of the world, a part of the universe once more, to feel the freedom from this that we call life? What would it be like to die?
My mind slips into a state of suspension from reality as my eyes droop and sweat trickles down the back on my neck as the rocking of the train lulls my body even as I stand. The sun has set, but the heat and the humidity remain, and the air conditioning seems ineffectual against the thermal energy emanating from the pack of humans pressed tightly in this confined space, barely able to move, but each mind occupied with their own thoughts and diversions. When did I become a part of this crowd? I wonder as my eyes fight to stay open and I try to keep my knees from folding on their own. Sweat coats the inside of my palm and I feel my fingers slipping off the plastic handle overhead. I hold on tighter. I wonder if it was when I decided to take this job instead of that, when I decided to say yes instead of no, when I decided to walk instead of run. I feel myself sinking, every morning an inch deeper, excruciatingly slow, agonizingly gradual, swallowed by the quicksand of foregone dreams and regrets and loves lost and loves never had. How far has it gone? How deep am I now? I wonder how long it will take to completely disappear into the depths to never resurface again, and I wonder how long before the hope of a hand reaching out and calling to grab hold dies. Or has it already? Did I let it? When?
The train stops at a station. The person sitting on the seat before me gets up and heads for the doors. In my mind I move forward and claim the vacant seat. In reality someone else does, someone older than me, stronger than me, more alive than me, someone who deserve it—the vacant seat, life. What would it be like to die?
The jagged horizon glows a bright orange turning to purple higher up the sky, a rare everyday beauty in this polluted regressive metropolis where the abstract has complete dominion over the lives that live within. And the lives—if you can call it that—content with being dominated over, moving about in unison, slave to the ticking of time, consumed with the latest and the fashionable, a sense of self long abandoned, fighting for scraps under the table, all oblivious to anything that makes one think, really think, introspect, analyse, contemplate, reflect, restart, reconfigure, all choosing oblivion, and happily so. Maybe it’s the city that did it. Maybe it’s the people in it that did it. Letting hope slide away willingly or mindlessly. Hope? Hope for what? To what end?
The heat from the asphalt burns my feet through the rubber soles of my shoes as I walk. The breezes are waves of death heat, singeing the trails of any element that is positive and promising from a person, singeing and then burning to ash until nothing is left in anyone’s wake except black soot. The heat burns away the pure and extinguishes the cool flicker within and replaces with nothing, leaving behind an emptiness that many do not know is empty until it’s too late, and then are filled with and fuelled by desperation to fill it that they become less than themselves before they know it, and when they know it it’s too late to do anything about it anymore. Behind me, I look and I see red embers floating in the air, carried by the wave of the heat until the red turns black and falls back down as ash. My burning trails. How do I keep from burning up? Or is this just an illusion? Is it my mind playing tricks on me as they often do? Have I burnt up already? Is this desperation setting in? If I can see inside of myself now, would it be as hollow as it feels?
A long time ago, I used to take comfort in the confines of the space I call my own. I reposed in the darkness behind the curtains, I thought of nothing but the light of the coming day and the peace of the past. Now the darkness is heavy and oppressive, and my thoughts, unbidden, snake through the blades of the rotten weeds of my mind, exploring the aftermath of the collapse of the caverns that once held treasures and the mud pools which once were life-giving springs. A long time ago I used to dream of stars; not so long ago my sleep was dreamless and that was fine; more recently the dreams returned as nightmares; now I do not sleep, but still the night terrors come to hound my waking dreams. I dream of a past where the skies are blue and the wind is pleasant, of a woman who is fair and holds the stars in her eyes and music in her laughter, of a love that fills my heart with songs and poetry and my life with colour. I do not know, I cannot remember anymore, if any of it had once been real, but the dream remains the same every sleepless night, the past and its blue skies, the woman and her starry eyes, the love with my love for her. The dream remains the same, until the blue changes to red and the stars fall and the love is spurned, then I become the darkness, the very thing that entraps me. I am running from no monster. I am the monster on a hunt with an unquenchable appetite for blood. I eat those that stand in my way as I roam the wasteland looking for those starless eyes, convinced that I could place those stars where they belong so my monstrosity would come to an end. I see glimpses of what I look for, but they are always beyond my reach, too far to call out for, and I run after it, causing more havoc, and suddenly I realize what I have done, realize that I engender fear, that I terrorize the very soul I pine for, and I wake from my nightmare, afraid to close my eyes again. Could I ever, even in my dream, have what I crave?
The rectangular glow of the curtain slowly dims before it glows again, now in varying and changing colours. I sit, I lie, I stand, I walk, I sit, I lie, I stand, I walk, I sit back down. Diversions. What do I have to divert me now when all that used to have become fickle and meaningless? The days are the same, the nights no different than the last, except that the sludge around my knees become firmer with each passing cycle. The illusion of normalcy, an appearance of having my life together, that is all I have, illusions and appearances. What am I doing then if not dying? So, then is this what it feels like?
I blink and it starts all over again, yesterday, the day before, today, the day after, makes no difference, it’s all the same, an infinite loop of duplicates, rewind and play all over again, only, I am an inch deeper in the quicksand than I was yesterday. I have to be, I’m sure. How else can I tell the days apart?
Morning, coffee, toilet, shower, dress, train, work; noon, work, feign, work, lunch, work, feign, work, feign; evening, work, feign, work, time. Train. What would it be like to die? My mind slips into a state of suspension from reality as my eyes droop and sweat trickles down the back of my neck as the rocking of the train lulls my body even as I stand. What would it be like to die?
Something different today, a minor variation, a tiny input in the middle of the infinite code of my existence, something random, likely immaterial, possibly a mistake. A phone call from an unknown number. Simple, not out of the ordinary, but a variation nonetheless. In the plethora of consumptions and endless billings and in the opulent chain of cornucopias called shopping malls and retail stores where excess is disguised as a necessity and where one is virtually indistinguishable from the other, in the virtual which has become a reality for the many and where identity can be traded and upgraded and personal information becomes a commodity to be auctioned and sold and passed on from stranger to stranger, unbeknownst to me, or maybe I was complicit all along and simply chose not to see it, couldn’t see it, didn’t care, don’t care, I have traded my privacy for convenience. I am not surprised when my phone rings and the machines on the other end of the line sells their products to me. Their voices are contrivances, hammered and shaped by big brother to fit into whatever shape is necessary to sell and sell and sell until they themselves become no more than talking devices, bought and owned by the company. But I can hear the quiet voices behind the metallic ring of the names of this plan or that product or this solution or that formula. I can hear the pain crying for help, begging to save them from the machines. But what can I do? I am just a broken man one paycheque away from being in the same dark cell alongside them. Or do I really hear them, or am I just hearing the voices in my head?
—Hello? Who’s this? My voice sounds hollow, uninterested, bored. I expect nothing. I expect the other voice to say sorry, wrong number. The time I spend talking on my phone in a day is shorter than the time I spend thinking of talking on my phone. Who do I have to talk to? Friends? Family? They live their lives their own way and I live mine my own. One does not bother the other with trivialities. They are all like me, the faces we see and the voices we hear are facades, fabricated to protect oneself from others and vice versa, the how-are-yous and good-days and goodnights and good-lucks and nice-talking-to-yous are recitations of habit, an outlet for all rote learnings and learnings by imitation. Nobody really cares. Nobody wants to care. None has the energy to. We are all just trying to stay afloat, trying to keep from sinking any further. Nobody has the time or the mind to listen to how you really are. So, I don’t call, I don’t text, I don’t ask how you are, I don’t tell you to have a good day, I don’t say it’s nice talking to you. I don’t talk. What’s the point?
—The question is, who are you? A female voice, slow, provoking. I stay silent. The rhythm of my heart changes, deviating from the usual seventy beats per minute, jumping to seventy-five, eighty. I listen. Silence on the other end, except for the faint sound of static, waiting, daring. What is this? A malfunction? A broken code?
—Who are you?
—That is the question, yes. Who. Are. You?
Who am I? I think. I think I know, but do I? Who is she? Eighty-five, ninety. I hang up. I take deep breaths of the sweat-moisturized air trapped in the train’s car I am confined in for the next thirty minutes. Who was she? The audacity. A prank, definitely. I check the number in an app I’m using for the first time, an app I have traded my security to for convenience. Nothing comes up. What number is this? It looks no different than any other number. Ten digits with the code. Have I gone crazy already? Have the hooks been set that deep already? Have I sunk deeper than I presumed? No. No! Yes! Life! I feel it. Anger, fear, signs of life. Signs of humanity, of a soul. I will not be bullied. Yes! I will not be cowed. Yes! I will never be intimidated! Yes! I dial the number back, a fresh range of vocabulary in my head ready to be dispensed at once. But an automaton speaks instead. The number I have dialled does not exist. I check the number and dial again. The number I have dialled does not exist. Have I gone crazy already? Have the hooks been set that deep already? Have I sunk deeper than I presumed?
I do not bother my mind with the phone call anymore as I make my way through the waves of heat, walking on the burning asphalt. It’s nothing but a random stray occurrence, meritless and ineffective in the grand scheme of things. I will be back in my studio apartment, I will pace in the dark, I will eat microwave food, I will lie down and try not to sleep while I try to sleep but try not to dream, and in the morning, it will start all over again. Routine. Habit. A great deadener. A way of life for the dying. So, then is this what dying feels like?
I do not bother my mind with the phone call as I get up and the first thing in my head is the voice. I do not bother my mind with the phone call as I get ready and the ringing in my head is the echo of the voice. I do not bother my mind with the phone call as I travel and the words in my head ask me who I am. I do not bother my mind with the phone call. I do not bother my mind. I do not bother. I do not. I do. I do bother. I do bother my mind. I do bother my mind with the phone call. I do bother my mind with the phone call as I leave work. As I travel. As I get back to my apartment. As evening becomes night. As midnight passes. Who. Are. You? Yes, indeed, that is the questions. Who are you? I check my phone again and again. Who are you? I try to call again and again. Who are you? This number does not exist again and again. Who are you? I check the number and dial again and again. Who are you?
I blink and it starts all over again, yesterday, the day before, today, the day after, makes no difference, it’s all the same, an infinite loop of . . . Wait. No, it’s not an exact copy. Not anymore. I am waiting, waiting for a phone call. Waiting to know who she is. Waiting to know who I am. Who am I? Who are you?
Mind slips, eyes droop, sweat trickles down, the train lulls, my phone rings. The person I used to be, the things I used to do, the things I used to love, the words I loved to say, my entire existence, the kind of person I was, the reactions I used to have to different circumstances, they are now all a thing of the past, a forgotten past, or at least bound to be forgotten. I have become a shell, void of personality and void of a blueprint that directs my actions—how do I react when this happens, how do I behave when that unfolds? I have been so consumed with the hopeful possibility of what I deem, or come to the eventual conclusion, was impossible, i.e., the phone call, that I have no idea how to react, much less what to say. How do I respond? What do I say? Do I ask her name? Do I tell her that I don’t know who I am? Do I tell her I am a lost soul wandering this utopian wasteland serving overlords that only see me as a cog in their machines and that I think of death every waking moment of my life ever since I can’t even remember when?
—So, you do want to find out who you are.
What do I say? What do I want? —Yes.
—Tell me, then. Who are you?
—I’m just a man.
—Not good enough.
—What is this? Who are you? How did you get this number?
—My friend, I am nobody. I am you. I am that love you couldn’t have. I am your mother, your father, your sister. I am your god, and your devil. I am just a voice on the other end of the line. I’m just a woman. I am your friend, or an enemy. I am anybody you want me to be, and I am none of it.
—What is this, please?
—This? This is your life, don’t you know?
—What do you mean? Am I . . .? Am I imagining you?
—Do you wish you were?
—Then I am real. As real as that lanyard around your neck. As real as that man standing next to you wearing a white shirt with the red stain.
The lanyard around my neck suddenly feels heavy, and I eye the man beside me with suspicion. I look about, at the people crowding around me. I look at their faces, at their eyes, at their lips. They do not seem to be whatever I am looking for; they do not seem to be aware of me, they do not seem to be aware of the world around them, so absorbed they are in their diversions, and they do not seem to be even aware of themselves, of their very existence. None of them could be her, but my heart pounds against my chest, a sensation that I have not felt in a long time, a sensation that I did not think I would ever feel, could even feel. Is this what not dying feels like?
—Are you looking around you? Looking for me? Searching for my face?
—How do you know?
—How? That’s irrelevant. You see, ultimately, everything is irrelevant, and the how of things, most of all. But that’s a big idea, a big theme, too big to comprehend in our tiny existence, so, the how, in some sense could be relevant.
—I don’t understand you.
—I didn’t understand it the first time either, but you’ll get there, I promise you.
—How do you know?
—Ah, there it is again. How? You’re a little obsessed, aren’t you, friend, about how. But I understand you. The comprehension of concepts, of the functions of a machine and the ability to operate them; it is a necessity, isn’t it, to function and operate in this world that we do? Like the machines we operate, our machines operate us. But do you believe it is a necessity to live?
—Do I believe . . .?
—A double meaning, yes, but I’d still like to know your answer to the question. Whichever one you think I mean? Whichever one you want to answer.
—No, I don’t think it’s a necessity.
—Would you feel complete without your machines? Would you feel complete in death?
—I don’t think I understand.
—No matter. Like I said, you’ll get there.
—Where is there?
—Patience, amigo. All in good time. You don’t want to know everything at once.
—Now that is a question for the ages. But not for now. Not yet. It’s been nice talking to you. And let me tell you, I’ve been waiting for it for some time. Until next time, cowboy.
—What’s your name?
—That, too, is irrelevant.
Where do I go from here? What is there beyond? Beyond what? Beyond these conversations, beyond this connection, beyond this feeling that I cannot define, that I cannot quantify, that I cannot shake, that I do not trust? The rhyme and meter of my days do not change and monotonous they drag on and on with no end in sight and one day seeping into the next, similar in everything else and hard to tell apart. But I notice that I am not sinking, or at least I feel like I am not. What is it? A momentary illusion? An impermanent respite? A calm before the storm? Nonetheless, the pause in my downward progress presents an uptick in thoughts of a nature that a while ago I would never have believed my mind could conjure on its own. And something called curiosity . . . What an alien sensation. It seems like there is a subtle and an ongoing process within me that is invisible and intangible, a transmutation into something more than I currently am or ever was, a transference of sensations from the hidden pockets of the world around me into me, penetrating me in stealth, like spies infiltrating. I see more now. Not much more than before, but more, just enough to want to see more, to want to know more. I still wonder what it would be like to die, to feel the life slip out of me, but my manner of wondering is slowly metamorphizing into something academic, slowly letting go of the wishful morbid interest in it. But I also wonder how long could it all last. How long before these feelings are punched and hammered and ground and rubbed and keyed away? How long before I am back to the same old nothingness, the same old stagnancy? How long before I return to reality?
The days are wearing on and the nights are wearing me down as time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and the conversation with the woman on the phone keeps on sliding, sliding, sliding back into the past. I do not call again, except once, two days after, and the only reply I got was the automated voice, yet I wait and I glance at my screen compulsively, the phantom sensation of my phone ringing prompting me to check every few minutes for days and weeks. I cannot say for certain how long has passed and I definitely cannot say for certain if I can go on like this much longer. Or am I even certain at all of my certainty?
Every morning, I get on the train, and the train seems to have lost a few overhead handles every day while there seems to be a constant inflow of people and barely anyone ever getting off. Every day, the work I need to do at work seems to multiply by the hundreds by the hour—to be perfectly honest, I really do not have any idea what I am doing, what my purpose is, what little part do I play in this grand machinery, it’s just something I have learnt to do, something I simply do, and I do not breathe a word of question as long as my money comes at every end of month, but lately, and maybe before as well, I am starting to wonder if I even care about that anymore—and the days seem to gain an hour as the week progresses and the weeks seem to gain a day as the month progresses. Every evening I get on the train and the cars seem to have shrunk or the people inside seem to have grown fatter, or I smaller, and it seem to halt between every station as if reluctant to get to the next as if the next station is the end of the line as if the end of the line is the end of the world as if the end of the world is a terrible thing. I am not eager to get back to my apartment, but I much less enjoy the cramping of my anatomy while I drown in sweat and breathe flatus as I try to keep my head above the waves of people swaying to the rocking motion of the trains and its sudden jerks as it perpetually screeches to a halt. The train eventually does reach my station and I claw my way out. Every late evening, I walk the burning asphalt and the temperature seem to rise a degree with each step I take and the wave seem to want to knock me over as if it has a mind of its own. Every night I lie in bed and the walls seem to be closing in an inch every time I blink and although I do not hate the darkness, the dark seems to deepen as the hours pass and the darkness hates me. Every morning. Every day. Every evening. Every late evening. Every night. On and on and on. How long? I say aloud. —How long? And then I think, How long before what?
Morning. Train. Evening. Train. My phone rings. My heart races. What do I do? Do I simply pick it up? Do I say hello like nothing has happened? What has happened? Nothing has happened? Do I say hello like I haven’t been going insane? What will she say? Is it even her? Is she even real? How long has it been? I can’t remember. Does it matter? Should it matter?
—Bonjour, mon ami. Do you miss me?
—I . . . have been wondering if you’d call again.
—Have you been patient?
—Maybe. Why can’t I call you?
—This is a one-way street, unfortunately. I didn’t make the rules.
—Then who did?
—Ah, a very good question. But it is a question without an answer, I’m afraid. Or, maybe it is a question that can only be answered by more questions.
—You like the rabbit hole, don’t you, Alice? Well, questions like, who are you? Who was the last person to carry you in their arms? Who was the last person who tied your shoelaces for you? Who’s that woman in your dreams who does not exist in real life? Or if ‘who’ bores you, let’s change it up to ‘what’. What really killed the dinosaurs? What’s on the other side of a black hole? What was there before the Big Bang? What’s there beyond the observable universe. What is time? What is space? What is infinity? Do you want me to go on?
—No need. I get your meaning.
—Astute. So, then, tell me. What would you say if you could call me?
—I . . . I don’t know. I just . . . I just wanted to call you, to just talk.
—Well, here I am.
—I’ve been . . . experiencing change. After the last time we talked, I feel like I was able to . . . see things more clearly. I was able to feel things. I was more emotional, I guess. And for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t feel like I was dying inside. I didn’t feel like I wanted to die. But it didn’t last. I was back to my same old self again. A relapse, only it feels much worse, after knowing, believing, that there is, maybe, a way out, out of this . . . this state of being. My state of being. You know? I don’t want it to end. I don’t want the good feeling to end.
—Poor boy. I know what you feel. I’ve been there before.
—Oh yes, and I know you will get out of it, believe me.
—It’s hard to believe when there’s not much to believe in.
—It feels that way now, but I assure you, there will come a time when you look back at all this, look back on ‘now’, and you wonder how you could feel so down when there has always been a way out of it. All you need to do is look for it, and you will find it.
—But where do I look?
—That, I cannot tell you. You see, despite our similarities, we are different too. What I saw around me, you will not see around you. What gave me hope might only depress you. Do you get my meaning?
—Yes. I think.
—Tell me what you do when one of those moments, those crushing moments come to stalk you, when you feel like this really is it. What do you do?
—I . . . don’t do anything. I can’t do anything. It’s like . . . there’s a heavy weight on me, twice, thrice as heavy as me, crushing me down, pinning me to the ground, and I’m unable to move. And the strangest part is, I don’t want to move. In my mind, I’d think, this is not so bad, although I know in reality that it is a terrible thing, that it is the worst thing, but I still think, it’s not so bad. And then when those moments pass, and they eventually always pass, I think, that wasn’t so bad after all. I guess I just . . . ride them out.
—And how much longer do you think you can ride them out?
—I don’t know. Honestly, I never knew if my curiosity would finally kill me in those moments. But the strangest thing is, I was never afraid. Not before, at least. But after the first time we talked, when I had those moments, I was afraid of it. I thought about going up to the roof, but the idea of looking down scared me. Before, I was never afraid to imagine it. But now I am.
—Do you wanna know what I did when I had those moments?
—I talk to myself.
—You just talk to . . . yourself?
—I did, yes. Sometimes I still do. Listen, even when those moments come around, and I’m sure it’s the same for you, there’s still always that part of your mind that stays sane and lucid and rational. Sure, it’s get obscured in the gloomy cloud fogging your mind, but I assure you it’s there. What I do is, I create a different person, a separate me, a manifestation of that tiny sane part of my brain. I imagine her sitting across from me if I was sitting down, or lying down next to me if I was lying down, and then I tell her everything on my mind, and, strange as it may seem, she responds. She tells me exactly what I want to need to hear instead of piling on to whatever that’s already there. You see, in any case, it’s hard to admit to a fault, to a shortcoming, but someone else who knows you inside and out, who cares for you, it’s easier for them to identify and inform you about them. If I was me alone, I couldn’t say those things I needed to say to truly recognize, much less to a degree where I can force them out, the dark poisonous matter inside me. In fact, sometimes it feels sweet and comforting in some convoluted way, and you might not want it to end. But a persona, an entity, an alter ego, if you will, separate from you, independent of you, will have no qualms about getting to the root of it and letting you know without smokes and mirrors what you need.
—How long did it take? To not need to talk to yourself?
—I still do it. Just not that often anymore, but I need it from time to time. Think of it this way: It is to my soul what a pacemaker is to the heart.
—So, are you saying I should talk to myself?
—If you want. Like I said, we are different even though we’re alike in many ways, so what works for me might only be detrimental for you. But it wouldn’t hurt to try. Right? And if that don’t work, you move on to the next and try something else.
—But like what?
—Do you listen to music?
—I mean, really listen to the music. When it moves you, when it carries you up in the air, when it takes hold of you and you sway to the melody without thinking about it, when it brings tears to your eyes, when it makes the hairs on your arms stand up, when you feel a warm glow blooming inside you. I mean, when the music listens to you.
—I don’t think so.
—Why don’t you give it a try, and really listen to the music.
—Well, then, my friend.
—I’m afraid so. But I’m never far, and you know I’ll be back.
—When you really need me.
—Can you at least tell me your name?
—That is . . . You know what that is.
I take the bus to nowhere, and it keeps on rolling in desperation on a never-ending road. My dreams, they linger in my head, and a voice tells me I’m not alone. These days, I feel the age in my bones. Thank you Marcoca, for the life in my limbs as they move to the melody, for the pumping in my heart as it beats to the rhythm, for the dreams in my head as I float solo along the bridge, for the words in my veins as I sing along out of tune but I don’t care. I am holding on to this game of life without a prize. I am searching for that feeling I can’t describe. I’m on my own, imprisoned by my past, in the prison of the past. I think I have forgotten, and I try to forget, but the worst remains and the fears return. Love. The fear of love, the never-ending game. I am ashamed. I am discouraged. I’m holding on to this game of love, a game without a prize. I wait for the feeling that will never come.
—Tell me about your family?
—My family? Why?
—Okay. My father was a bank clerk before he retired. Now he helps out my mother, who’s been a stationer for almost all my life. Together they run the stationery store. My older brother also works at a bank, but as a manager now, and a different bank. Has a wife and two kids. One on the way. My older sister works for the state Finance Department. Married. One kid. My younger brother’s doing his PhD in Computer Science, and he’s engaged.
—So, now that we’ve established your family’s love for numbers and computing, tell me about them.
—What’s there to really say? They’re a normal family. As normal as any other family. If you’re trying to scrutinize me, survey and explore my past in an attempt to unearth some unresolved childhood trauma that could be the root cause my . . . current state, I assure you, I had a very normal, a very average, even a loving upbringing. My childhood was . . . well, normal. I knew a few kids back then, a few friends who had terrible childhood, a terrible home life, but they all turned out okay. You know? There’s really not much to there to examine that closely.
—Nevertheless. Like I said, I’m only curious.
—Alright fine. Well, my father is a pragmatic man. Just like most fathers where I grew up. The stereotypical father. You know? Stoic, emotions shored up. Few words of praise or encouragements, fewer words of love, especially when I became a teen. He does show his love in his actions, sometimes in a roundabout way. Wordlessly buying gifts for me and my siblings, disguised as practical purchase and dismissing them as if it’s nothing. He’s generous too. Suppose I asked him for some money, he’d give me double of what I asked for. You know? Doesn’t like fanfare, although he champions traditions, which is mostly fanfare, to be honest. And, while we’re on honesty, I guess there were times in my youth where I could’ve done with a little more . . . perceptible kind of love. You know? In hindsight, I do understand the way he was, and I appreciate everything he did, and of course now I know he really is sentimental underneath all the stoicism, but when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy who feels like it’s you against the world, a verbal divulgence of love and understanding from a father could’ve done wonders. You know? But it’s okay. Looking back, I understand how such simple acts could be so hard to carry out. Imagining myself in his place now, I’m not sure if I’d have done anything any differently.
—Humour me. Do you think, when you were sixteen and you felt like it was you against the world, if your father has told you he loved you, and that he understood what you were going through, do you think you’d find it easier to imagine yourself doing the same if you were in his place now?
—I guess so. But everyone’s different. You know?
—Everyone’s different. What about your mother?
—My mother. She’s similar in many ways to my father, but at the same time, she’s completely different too. Although she sometimes claims to have a disdain for pomp and ceremony, she does love fanfare. She loves socializing, making connections, no matter how many times she says she doesn’t. She’d say for appearance’s sake, as if she was apologetic of the number of times she has said she dislikes it, but anyone who knows her knows it too. You could call her a socialite. She remembers names and faces, even of those she met only once, and it’s a point of pride for her. It’s also one of the things she really differs from my father in. My mother always had to point out who’s who. But like my father, she also is a traditional woman, although I guess farther away from orthodoxy than my father. And on the matter of open-mindedness, she was much more lenient in our rebellious phase. Our upbringing was for the most part in the hands of my mother. Like I said, I grew up in a normal stereotypical household. You know? Father works and brings home the bread, and mother keeps the house in order. Hardly anything revolutionary. But in a way, I guess that kind of brought about a sense of ownership over us, over our lives, that manifested in a reluctance to let us grow up and be our own selves. I wouldn’t say she ever helicoptered us, but sometimes, in my late teens and early twenties, I’d look at other people my age, how independent they were, the distance they’d covered on their own, and I think about how if I was taught, guided, on how to be independent, how to be my own self, how to make my own way instead of my way being made for me, how differently might I have turned out. But I don’t dwell on it. It never does anyone any good to dwell on things like that. And like my father, I know she did her best. I love her for it. I appreciate it.
—Was there something you wanted to do when you were younger? A dream in life?
—Actually, yes. I remember wanting to be a woodworker. A carpenter, to be accurate. I haven’t yet learned the term ‘woodworker’. But yes, that was, once upon a time, my dream in life. I was just so mesmerised by the beauty that could be carved and built from a simple plain block of wood or a few planks. I guess in some ways it’s still my dream, I guess, but the other kind of dream. You know?
—So, what stopped you from chasing it?
—I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think I even ever told anyone about it. I was maybe ten or eleven when I first became interested in it, and I guess I didn’t really know what to do about it. Back where I came from, carpentry wasn’t the most lucrative field of work. At least not back then. It was seen more or less in parallel to masonry or simply just manual labour. If you don’t work in an office, or have the kind of career the older generations don’t really get, then your work is automatically devalued in their opinion. You know? Not that I think too highly of the opinions of people like that, but that was just how it was. And in a way, I guess I kind of just knew I would never get to do that, never get to work with wood, knowing who my father was, my mother, my family, our proclivity for numbers and computing. I guess I just knew intuitively, so I never really even had the thought of chasing that dream. The chase was over before I even knew it could be chased.
—If you could go back now and choose, would you chase it?
—I . . . I guess I would. Yes.
—Why did you hesitate?
—I don’t know. Maybe if I was sure I’d succeed, I’d go back and choose differently in a blink of an eye.
—Success is never a guarantee, my friend. No matter what, no matter where, no matter who. Everything’s a gamble. Life’s a gamble. You make choices based on risks and rewards, sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks, sometimes not, and sometimes you miscalculate the reward or the risk. Even hard work cannot guarantee success, but, and forgive the cliché, you’ll never have a better chance at success than hard work. That, I guarantee.
—Would you then have me give everything up and chase this dream?
—Risks. Rewards. Hard work. Would you have you?
—Am I not already past the point to choose something else completely different from what I’m doing now?
—That is a question only you can find an answer to.
I have been thinking a lot about what I want, and I realize that there’s a lot more that I don’t want. I think a lot about the conversation. Woodworking. Woodcarving. I find great diversion in videos of the people all around the world creating these masterpieces from nothing, creating these paragons of art; functionality and aesthetic, passion and artistry, hard work and resilience. In those minutes and hours of diversion, there is nothing that I want greater than to be as masterful as them, but I find something lacking. When my screen goes black, I try to recapture the dream and fascination that I once had a lifetime ago, I try to feel the same awe, dream the same dream, but that doesn’t quite do it. The tail of that dream has too far gone beyond my reach. I realize that I am content with the alternative kind of dream. Nevertheless, a question remains. What dream do I have that I really want to chase? The question, for the first time in a very long time, the first in a multitude of notions, excites me.
The other evening, I was walking back to my place from the metro station after work. Summer is going and the winds have been milder of late. That day the sky was cloudy and the weather was pleasant, and I suddenly thought about how a waste it would be to just go home, so I walked past my apartment building and I kept on walking and walking until I came upon a park not too far from my place that I did not know existed before. I went into the park. There were people running and walking. Kids were playing. I saw a man sitting on one of the benches with a smile on his face as he looked on at two kids, presumably his children, playing on the seesaw. I watched him from a way away, watched him as he laughed as one of the kids stumbled, watched him as he made a joke or told them what to do, watched him as he got up and stood guard as the kids climbed the monkey bar. I wondered if he was any similar to the people I ride the train with every day, if he was similar at all to me. The thought made me uneasy, like I was polluting this man’s life. I moved on. On the other end of the park where there were fewer people, a young man and a young woman sat on a bench with their shoulders together. They were joking, laughing, and they talked in low volumes as if every word they shared were intimate secrets. At one point the man put his arm across the woman’s shoulder and the woman rested her head on the man’s collar. I wondered who would break whose heart, then I felt a pain in my heart. I moved on.
—Do you want to talk about love, cowboy?
—What of it?
—What of it? Love is our reason for existence, if you ask me. If you want to call it an emotion, then it is the deepest and greatest any human being can feel. If you want to call it a concept, then it is the most complex and extensive and intense concept there is or ever will be. Love is why we live. Love is at the heart of all things we do, of all the decisions we make, the decisions we don’t make. If anyone’s bereft of love, any kind of love, then you know that person has very little to live for. It’s the chicken and egg situation. Are they bereft of love because they have little to live for, or do they have little to live for because they are bereft of love? And in the end, when everything goes away, love remains, and love is revealed to be what matters most, and sometimes, the only thing that matters. So, indulge me, what is love to you?
—Love is responsibility. Nothing more.
—Care to elaborate?
—Well, take parents for example. They love you, especially in your youth, so they feel responsible for you, and they want to be responsible for you. We take up responsibilities and sometimes go out of our way to do things not because we like doing those things but because the things that we do will benefit the people we love and our relationship with them. At the crux of it, love is nothing more than that. All the other stuff about it being this grand emotion that can move mountains, they’re nothing but embellishments to sell products to the unwitting. It’s only a simple emotion, a feeling of responsibility towards someone you have an affinity for. Sure, maybe I agree with you. Love may be the reason we live and the reason we keep going, but that doesn’t mean that the responsibilities are minimalized in any way at all, and at the heart of that kind of love is a feeling of responsibility, the need to do things, the need to perform, the need to profess, the need to maintain a status quo, the need to retain that love, and all of those are driven by a sense of responsibility towards the other person. And if people feel complacent in a relationship and they make no effort, take up no task, basically once that sense of responsibility goes, or even declines, not to mention when it completely dissipates, love goes out like a light.
—Two things. That makes no sense, and that is undoubtedly the most callous idea of love that I’ve ever heard.
—I did. But I wonder, how long ago did you begin to have this idea?
—It’s a realization, if anything.
—A realization, is it? Then I wonder when you began to have this realization. Was it when she told you she wasn’t looking for love? Or was it later when you start to realize that she was telling the truth? Maybe it was when that hope still shimmering inside you that she might still reach out finally flickered out.
—What are you trying to prove? I’ve moved on. You won’t hurt me with that. Not anymore.
—You once used to believe, didn’t you, the idea of love that I have? When you still had hope, you used to think, if only you had her love, then you would be complete, that her love for you would be all that mattered. You used to wonder and dream and fantasize what it would be like to be loved by her, to have a life together, to live out the rest of your days knowing that the person you loved most loved you back equally. You used to ride the blue waves of your dreams with so much hope and so much passion, now you look at those dreams from a distance, as if you’re looking through the gap of a doorway, standing in the dark, nothing but contempt in your eyes for ever having loved so much someone who couldn’t, wouldn’t love you back. You don’t hate her, you don’t despise her, you don’t dare to, because a tiny part of you wouldn’t allow it, a tiny part that still feels that pining, that still hopes. Instead, you hate the idea of love. You want to deconstruct it, disassemble it, scrutinize and analyse it, and trivialize it. You want to disillusion yourself not because you believe love is an illusion, but because you can’t bear the thought of not being loved. You hate the idea of love, and as much, you hate that you ever loved, and for that you hate yourself. You don’t wonder anymore what her arms would feel like around you, how intensely the fires inside you would burn if you could embrace her, even for a moment, feel her breath on your neck, feel her lips against yours, her skin against yours. No, those only bring you pain. Now you only wonder what it would be like to die. Without her love, what do you have? Love was the reason for your existence, and now that you have none, you think only of death. Now I ask you, is love really nothing more than responsibility? I want you to ponder this: What would it be like to love again?
The rain falls heavy and the winds are strong. The train stops at a station—there is some obstruction on the tracks ahead, maybe some accident. I am not eager to get back to my apartment. It can rain for as long as it likes and blow as hard as it likes. I like it here, sitting on a bench in the crowded station, people-gazing. I don’t look at them as a crowd, but as individuals. There are two high school kids standing a little to my left, still in uniform. Their shirts are wrinkled and untucked and their shoes are layered with dust. I wonder where they had been. They are talking fervently to each other, bursting into laughter every so often. They look happy. They look like they are having fun. They don’t mind the storm, much less the delay. They don’t want to go home. They don’t want the day to end. They make me smile. I then look at a woman beyond the kids, looking out at the heavy rain, at the wind lashing. Her arms are crossed over her chest but her gait is relaxed. She has a large backpack on her back and earphones on. I imagine she has come from somewhere far away, maybe another city, that she is just passing through. I imagine her imagining the pace she has left, and looking forward to the pace she will get to. I wish her all the best. There is an older man to my right, about as old as my father, or maybe older. He is wearing glasses and reading leaning against a metal beam. As I look him up and down, a seated younger man calls out to him and offers his seat, but the elder man graciously declines the offer. With a smile he goes back to reading his book. I wonder what his children, if he has any, are doing now. I imagine he is a good man, loved and loving. I hope he lives in strength for a long time to come. I focus on a pregnant woman, possibly a couple of months away from labour, sitting on the bench next to the younger man. A smart-looking bag lies flat on her lap, and I imagine its contents to be important documents and files. She is wearing a neat loose-fitting grey dress and she’s wearing sneakers. She has a thin wrist watch strapped around her left wrist, almost as thin as the wedding band on her finger. Her hair is done in a bun that was presumably tidier in the morning when she was going the other way. She is smiling as she speaks on her phone, and by her tone I can tell she is speaking to a child, maybe a toddler. I imagine the child eager for their mother to get home. I imagine a grandmother looking after the child. I imagine a husband for the woman, still at work, also eager to know if his wife gets home in this weather. I imagine them happy. I imagine myself in their place. I imagine myself happy. I imagine a wife, a daughter, a son. I imagine. And as I do, the thought comes on its own—what would it be like to love again?