The clock moved beyond hours I knew. From our window I watched as the lights vanished from the neighbourhood. Bedrooms went dark, the final cars rested in their garages, and dogs yawned after their walks. Lamps bathed the streets in orange.
But while the night held its stillness, we kept madness inside. Every light was on and they made our tired eyes water. Music fired on endlessly and rattled the floor and the walls. We breathed in the sick warmness that was each other, an sticky air saturated with alcohol. Our drunk bodies drifted around like logs in a pond. Sex happened in rooms. Vomit dribbled on bathroom tiles. Cups bred in the house like rats, gathering in piles.
I felt terribly lonely because Liz was not interested in me, and I watched as she led Tony upstairs, his hand in hers as she tugged him after her. He passed winks of victory to all of us as we watched the two of them ascend and disappear into a room. His friends cheered.
I wanted nothing more but to burst his head open but as usual I never had the balls and did not understand how people like him went about doing what they did. How do you sit beside a girl and turn from sitting to locking lips? I was barely able to utter a single word and guys like Tony were able to reach over and take what they wanted.
I sat against the wall and drank until my weight multiplied and my head spun.
"Jacob," said the morphing shape of Dan. "Don't do this to yourself. Have some fun."
I wanted to agree with him but the image of Liz and Tony rolling around naked in each others' sweat and arms made me sick and angry.
No night lasts forever. Eventually someone turned off the music and the noise of shouts began to die down. Bodies found cozy spots on the carpet. Lights dimmed.
Somebody said something about going outside for a smoke and the remaining population slowly migrated towards the door. I went over sluggishly, weighed down as if I wore a fur coat drenched in water.
The screen door swung back and forth violently creaking as none of us had the ability to let ourselves out properly. The night air was fresh to take in. The darkness welcomed us with open arms. We could not see much. I felt as though we were on a shore, staring out at an infinite ocean. Houses stood mere meters from us, but I felt as though civilization was far awaay.
We fell onto the grass and it was cool against our skin. It was a sea of cold cigarettes, glass bottles, and other forgotten items we had kissed only hours ago. I pulled a cup out from under me that had crushed and split. We lay together, some on their bellies, some on their backs. We flailed our arms and tried to make angels on the lawn.
"This is nice, isn't it?" Dan said to me, punching my shoulder. He drew a cigarette to his mouth, lighting his face perfectly for a second. He breathed it in and looked up at the stars.
They winked at us like jewels. The sky felt like a blanket, and the grass our bed.
I noticed that Mel was beside me. I always thought she was nice, easy to talk to. She was not bad looking, with a round face, a good smile, and short, brown hair. She was not fat, but not skinny either. Mel was nothing special to me.
However, the night air made me feel better. I had not lay down beside a girl for quite some time. A force inside me drew me toward her. I turned to look at her. Blades of grass tickled by head. The stars behind her were a silver crown. I was beyond delirious, for my eyes produced colours all around her, as if the universe revolved around her.
"Mel," I whispered.
She looked at me. I could see myself in her eyes. She looked tired.
I told my hand to reach over and it met her arm. My fingers slipped down and found her hand. Our fingers locked slowly. I liked that feeling. She held my hand back.
And so I closed my eyes and leaned in. She leaned in as well. It was a soft kiss. My arms slowly went around her and held her close to me.
An open wire fell into the water of my brain. Sparks fired in every direction. I knew it was not love, but I felt tremendous emotion that set fire to every atom in my body.
I considered myself a good actor. I had a fair amount of friends in my life and I did not mind spending time with them. But I could not help but feel extremely lonely even when I was in their company.
I would see other people huddled together in restaurants or laughing while on the street and wondered if they truly enjoyed each other, if they found something deep inside each other that reflected back what they were looking for, those deep parts of themselves that needed to be satisfied, and were satisfied. Passing time with my friends meant winding myself up and moving by the right gears when I was with them. They could not tell. My true self lay in my head, silently commenting, judging while my muscles turned accordingly.
Though I would not call what I had with Mel love, I did not feel this way with her. There were parts of her I did not like and I could name them easily. But I felt comfortable with her and I was unable to wind myself up to move when I was around her. I could not guess my actions. They were true and surprising.
All my life I had a hole inside of me. I did not know what it was and could not name it. The world had told me all the things I should have been thankful for and I would lie that this void was not there, that I was satisfied, but inside I carried it around with me like a weight at my neck. I knew I was spoiled and well off. I did not know what it meant to want for my survival, and yet I had want for something else.
I saw something in Mel that my heart was looking for, yet it was unstable, as if it would vanish in a blink.
After that night on the lawn, Mel and I spent a lot of time together. After school I often bussed her home and talked with her. I was never bored. I never repeated my own words.
Every week we ate at a noodle shop near our homes. It was called Choihung Express, and it said so in bright neon letters, blue and red. There was a bar, and behind it, you could see into the kitchen where strings of dough flew around in clouds of flour. They usually gave us a table for four, two on each side. A tea and setting would be placed on each end, but she would slide her cup over to the seat next to me, push the napkin and chopsticks over, and come around to side beside me.
We had a lot of conversations here. I told her about the things I learned in school that were meant to make us feel bigger and more knowledgeable, but the more I took in the more I felt small and insignificant.
"Stop it," she would say, taking my hand in both of hers. "Don't be overwhelmed. It will take time and you will focus."
As I grew older, my world had become a blind walk in the dark. Someone had stolen my eyes and, with a knife at my back, told me to run forward. But when Mel was there, this did not feel so hopeless. She walked in front of me, and guided me with her hand.
"I love you," she told me. "You'll get through this."
Some nights when I felt particularly hopeless, I would sneak out and make my way to her house. It usually took just over half an hour. I wore a thick coat over my pajamas and crossed the orange sidewalks until her house came into my sight.
I became very good at sliding though the basement window to her room. She would lock her door and we would sleep together. We had a lot of sex this way.
Sometimes I wondered if I stayed with her because of the physical comfort. Perhaps my brain tricked my heart or my heart tricked my brain into believing that I had something special here when it was just chemicals her body created in me. I do not believe this was the case. When I had sex for the first time, I fooled myself into thinking I loved somebody. It was not this way with Mel because my needs were greater than that, though I did wonder if I was with her merely because I was lonely.
Mel had her own needs from sadness and often I was able to comfort her when she cried. I said the right things and held her the way she needed. When we first began seeing each other, I was frightened that she would tire of me, but it seemed we both had something to give to the other, and it was something we had been looking for.
Difficulties arise when you get to know anything on a more intimate level. Subjects at school are like that. It is the same with people. I think that is why families are the way they are.
I suppose I always knew that Mel's darker side was there lurking. There were moments when she got snappy with our server at restaurants, got into debates with me that took bad turns, or even yelling at me when I was ten minutes late to meet up with her.
I noticed my own darker side as well. I found myself wanting to argue rather than give in, wandering off on my own when we went out, and getting angry if she chose to spend time with other people rather than me. If she ever did anything I did not like, I would call her out on it.
This seemed to begin from nowhere, but I felt as though some hidden part of me knew why. It was not as though all the happy moments had vanished. There were happy moments. But in between, the frustration grew like a cancer that threatened to take over. More and more time was swallowed up by disagreement. It threatened to come out every time we were together.
We had a birthday dinner we were both invited to. It was June's, Dan's girlfriend. I was determined not to cause a scene.
"Alright," I said. "We need to behave. We can't fight there."
"Speak for yourself," she said. "I'm always well behaved."
We met at the metro station at sunset. The neighbourhood was covered in shadow but the sky was still a wash of warm, orange light.
Mel wore a jacket over a collared shirt, dark blue with white polka dots, tucked into a pair of high-waist pants with a skinny red belt.
I took her on my arm. "You look great," I said.
She kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks. Here's the present."
She showed me a slim package. I turned it around in my hands. The paper crinkled. It was sand-coloured with pugs all over it.
"Thanks for making us look good," I said, tucking it under my arm.
"Please," she said. "If you look bad, I look bad."
We got on the train looking like a happy couple. We sat close together with two nice presents in our laps. She hugged my right arm and leaned against me.
I saw a guy my age looking at us with longing. That was me, I thought. That is me. Seeing couples used to make me feel angry and sad, but mostly sad. I wonder what he thought about us, if he thought we were truly, truly happy.
Little did he know, I looked at other couples with longing. But did they feel the same that I did?
The train came out of the ground and we sped along a rail that ran into the city. As we moved, the towers of glass rippled like water. We could see into offices where people were packing and we could see where people began to crowd the streets. This was the usual Friday scene. Friends met to eat things and go out.
Mel and I held hands through downtown. It was a nice evening, not too cold, and we felt part of the scene. Shops were alive. Hot dog stands gave off great smells and I was tempted to screw the dinner and just have one.
"No," said Mel with a laugh, pulling me away.
We found the restaurant and everybody was there on the warm patio. There were sixteen of us at a long table. We greeted June, handed her our presents to a big smile, and sat down.
Dan was on my left. He also could not stop smiling.
"What?" I asked quietly.
"You," he said excitedly. "You two look happy!"
"Funny boy," I said.
"No," he said. "I'm serious. Who would've thought? You and Mel!"
I do not know why, but I did not like him calling us that. The old me would have loved it. He would have loved the idea of his name beside somebody else's, the idea of belonging. But I felt uncomfortable about being put next to Mel. I did not want to admit it, but I felt a hint of embarrassment. Not because Mel was ugly or a poor catch, she grew prettier to me by the day, but because my feelings for her were not what I thought I would feel when I was in love. I understood it was unrealistic to expect constant passion, but in its place I thought there would be a contented intimacy. I had intimacy, but I was not content. Perhaps this was the reason for my bickering with Mel.
However, it was not one-sided, not just me going at her and her reacting. She was frustrated with me as well. Did she feel the same way I did? If yes, then why were we together? Were we that frightened of loneliness? Or were we truly drawn to one another in a way we could not explain?
Our food arrived and everyone chatted fondly. I had mussels in a garlic broth with a mashed potato side. It tasted great and I eagerly spooned up the broth.
Even I was having a good time. We talked about the old days growing up and I told lots of old stories and everybody loved them. I had forgotten what it felt like to be liked. I did not realize that I had not seen many people other than Mel, except for maybe Dan on occasion.
We finished our food and waited for them to bring out a cake that Dan had bought for June.
"This is fun," I said to Mel. "I hadn't done anything fun like this for a long time."
She became disturbingly quiet and I did not like it.
"What," I said.
She did not say anything.
I repeated myself. I do not like repeating myself.
"Are you saying I'm not fun?" she asked me quietly.
"No," I said. "It's just that I haven't seen everybody for a long time. I'm always with you."
"Right. And I'm not enough for you."
"I didn't say that."
She looked at me. Her face was still but her eyes were angry. "You might as well have. That's fine, that's just fine."
Nobody seemed to notice we were having trouble. They were chatting excitedly with one another. Beyond the patio fence, the night moved on. Lights and colours were alive. Couples walked hand in hand. Street performers gathered crowds.
"I told you to behave," I said. "You're not behaving."
"Don't tell me what to do," snapped Mel.
"What's your problem?" I asked. "You don't have to have so much attitude. I just said that I'm having fun here."
"I'm not being like anything. It's good you're having fun. Why don't you have more fun with your friends and see me less?"
"If I really wanted to see my friends, why would I be bothering with you? Obviously I like spending time with you."
"Then shut up and stop complaining."
I was hot with anger. The server came to take my plate away and I put on another face and thanked him very pleasantly.
Mel stood up very suddenly with her bag and walked away. Her chair made a noisy squeak.
"Whoa," said Dan. "What's going on?"
Everybody looked at me. They could see me wear trouble and I wondered if they were judging me. Arguing with Mel in public is a lose-lose situation. Even if I was right, I would look bad for arguing with her.
We were on the patio, so we could see Mel leave the restaurant.
She was too far away. I felt weak and powerless again.
"Aren't you going to go after her?" asked Dan.
I stared at him.
"Just go," he said. "I'll take care of your bill. Go."
I apologized to everyone. They said it was okay. They said they would see me soon.
I stepped into the night and slipped through people like a speeding drop of mercury. I felt like this sometimes, moving quickly, quietly, alone. The voices and traffic were a music. The day died and the sun surrendered to sleep as the city fully woke. Line ups poured into the streets. Fine suits sat on the shoulders of successful men and they tugged beautiful girls by the hand. Buses dumped people and left empty.
I could not find her. I tried calling her cell phone but she did not pick up. She did not respond to my texts.
I stood in the middle of the sidewalk looking foolish as I was pushed by passersby. The sound became an ocean of noise. Everything lost form and felt like tall waves assaulting me. I wanted to cry, but I knew Mel would have made fun of me if I did, despite her not being there. Me and my drumming heart stood alone as the moon took its place in the sky.
I lived the next few days by my phone. I did not move through my life with my phone, but rather, I lay fixed beside it, with life moving by me. If I watched those days in fast forward, it would have shown me looking dead while the colours of my days in class and time at meals swam by.
Worries gathered my mind and fears grew in my stomach like long, fat worms.
I thought of visiting her when she got off work, but she had sent me a text that if I ever did, she would make sure to remove me from her life more than she was doing already. She told me not to test her.
Some nights she would pick up the phone and tell me to fuck off.
One night I called her while crying and she happened to pick up. I really pressed her.
"You're such a pussy," she said.
I cradled the phone while lying down in bed. It was damp with tears.
"Are you even a man, crying like that?" she asked.
I cried harder.
"That's right. Keep on crying. You're only proving me right."
"What's going on?" I asked. "Why are you like this? You're not like this."
"Maybe you just never knew me before."
"Don't say that."
"Don't tell me what to do."
I felt so helpless, as if my entire body was bound by tight cloth, restricting my movement, but with a hole to reveal my mouth so I could speak.
"You still love me right?" I asked her desperately. This was a person I was absolutely vulnerable to. I told her everything. I exposed every secret part of me to her. And yet here she was, warding me off with a spear. I was naked and she jabbed sharp wounds at my flesh but I kept coming back.
"No," she said. "Maybe I never did."
"Don't say that."
"You're such a whiny baby."
She hung up.
It went like this for a number of nights. I hit myself with the phone sometimes when she hung up or said things to me. I would wake up with a headache from crying and the bruising.
Then one day when I sat dead in class, I received a text.
"Meet me at Choihung Express," she said.
And so we did. I got there first. It felt odd sitting at a table by myself. It was terribly lonely, but I felt as though I sat there with another self, whispering my thoughts back to me. Nobody else sat alone. They all had somebody. I drank my tea. The days were colder now, and holding the hot cup in my hands was comforting.
Mel appeared ten minutes late. She looked at me with angry eyes. She put her bag under the table and sat down.
"Hi," she said.
And we made awkward small talk for a bit before she took my hands and said sorry for everything, sorry for the hanging up, for the hateful words, and told me all the reasons she was unhappy with me, that I was not being interesting enough, that I did not show enough interest in her, that I did not love her enough, but that she wanted to stay with me if I promised to be a better person.
I was infuriated but I did not care. She had me in her hands and its odd to think such a small gesture had such power over me but it did and I would have gone to fetch her the moon if she had asked me then.
I agreed to be a better person.
She smiled and said, "Good," and kissed me.
I could not count the number of broken promises we made to one another. Something would not allow us to keep them. Was it because this was not love?
We broke up and got back together often. It was the history of the earth happening in days. Things that breathed in the morning became fossils at night. The ice age happened and ended before the moon came out. Continents shifted.
One day I was with Dan at Choihung Express. Apparently June had broken up with him. I had not seen him in a very long time because I was always attending to Mel so I thought it would be odd to call him for a meal out of the blue because I had heard about the break up. I called him anyway and I was glad that he did not think of me as some gossipy old lady but a friend.
He did not look sad. I asked him why not.
"Things are like that, Jacob," he said. "I should have known in the back of my head that it was not going to last."
Two bowls of thick noodles arrived at our table. The soup was rich and soft beef flank was in it. I could smell cilantro.
Jacob looked very happy and hugged the bowl. He helped himself to a pair of chopsticks and a spoon from a container on our table and began slurping up the noodles. He chewed and ate and gobbled it down, occasionally having a spoonful of hot soup.
"Are you not frightened?" I asked him.
"Of what?" he asked in between gulps.
"Of being alone," I said.
"I can't afford to. Does that mean when I decided to get together with June I died as a person? Of course not. I need to still be me."
I sat quietly and turned Dan's thoughts with the fingers of my mind. He noticed that I was not eating.
"Things not going well with Mel?" he asked me.
I debated whether or not to tell him. I did not think he would understand because I barely did. The conversations of others filled the silence.
"Well?" he said.
"I feel like I'm in a prison," I said. "Sometimes I'm let out, but then put back again. A prisoner in my own body."
"That's fucking depressing," said Dan. "Very emo."
"Hey, you asked."
Dan was very hungry. He wolfed down the pieces of meat whole.
"Do you love her?" he asked me. "I don't care if you think she's the one for you or not. I just want to know if you love her."
"I don't think there is such a thing as love," I told him. "Nothing ever works out."
"Oh, shut up. You're just bitter because you're single. Now stop whining and eat your fucking noodles."
"Listen to me," he said. "I know you love her. I can tell. And I know you have trouble too. But you have a decision to make here. You have to decide if she's worth keeping. You have to realize nobody's perfect and that you could be holding the girl that was the one for you but you chose to throw away because of one little fight. You have to ask yourself this: if you have something good, is it really worth the risk chasing after a dream? Think about it."
"But what if it's more than just a fight?" I asked.
"Then make up your mind and don't look back. Maybe you're your own prison. You're at the edge of this choice and you keep looking back."
Sometimes I went to Choihung Express by myself in the afternoon. I would get a milk tea and a sweet bun or some pudding and do homework. I usually took a table beside the wall. My backpack had the honour of sitting in the seat opposite me. People would come and go while I worked there. The sun would fall into the neighbourhoods and douse the sky pink before vanishing. I worked there from light until dark.
That was how I always felt. Still, perfectly still, while everyone else moved. I always wondered if something was wrong with me. I could not call myself an introvert because I was not content with being alone, and yet, at the same time, I hated everyone else for having someone.
"You're always here!" said a voice. I snapped out of my depression.
"What?" I said.
There was a girl in front of me. She was tall and skinny and wore glasses. Her face was thin and she wore an excited look of alertness. She sounded jittery as she talked.
"Yes, you're always here," she said. "I'm always here too. I sit over there on the other side behind the bar so you never see me but I see you here sometimes. You're always looking so sad so I thought you could use a friend! Do you mind?"
I did not say anything but she heaved my backpack off the chair and took a seat.
"This is heavy," she said. "What are you studying? Bricks? Chrome?"
I felt more awake just listening to her talk. She was a very fast talker.
And that was how I met Viv.
We always met to study at Choihung Express but it never turned out that way. We always ended up talking. Sometimes we talked about her boyfriend, who was a real asshole. Sometimes we talked about school. But most of the time, we talked about the future.
"Here, what do you think of this," she said, making a picture frame with her thumbs and fingers. "It doesn't matter what job we get because we will eventually enter in a lull and end up enjoying it anyway. It becomes a part of us. It's an invisible prison we never see. Depressing, isn't it? Is everybody like that?"
"Maybe," I said. "Maybe we all have our own quiet prisons. Maybe we're all slaves and we don't know it."
"You're more depressing than I am!" she laughed. "You should write them on posters or stickers and sell them."
Eventually I told her about Mel. She understood me very well because she had been there before.
"That's not healthy, dude," she said. "You gotta make up your mind. You're not just lying to yourself here. You're lying to her."
"It's not that I don't love her," I said.
"I know that, but you're not happy either. I think you have to figure yourself out."
Four years passed. Four long years of hateful words and reconciliatory embraces. Four long years of us crying alone and crying together.
Fate had bound me to Mel but that tie was not love. I do not know what it was.
I talked to Viv about it sometimes. Mel did not like me spending time with another girl but she got used to it. Viv broke up with the asshole and was sad for a while but got back up. She found somebody else for a while but that did not work either. She was fine after.
Viv said the same things to me about Mel, I just ignored them.
Mel and I were in a car. We were going away, spending some vacation time together on an island.
We took a ferry there in the afternoon. The view was nothing spectacular. The clouds were gray and the water was gray. From my seat I thought it was the islands that were moving and not our ferry. They drifted past us like huge ships. They were quiet but I felt as though they were alive, giant beasts covered in needly pines and crumbling cliffs, with moss and grass and barnacles creeping over every surface as waves heaved their bodies against the stone.
It started to rain before we docked and poured as we got into our car and drove out of the bay. Water swept across the windshield in moving puddles. Hair-thin rivers of rain shivered on the glass as we drove. The sound was the tapping of a thousand fingers on metal.
The road grew quiet. It was narrow, two lanes one way, two lanes another, winding through a tall forest. Trees shot up from both sides. We were going fast. Occasionally another car would pass us the other way but we were alone.
Mel had a blanket over her and thumbed her phone.
"No hiking this weekend," she said.
I looked over at her from the road. "Well, we can just stay in," I said. "It'll be nice."
Everything was gray. Green and gray. There was a flash. The sound of thunder in the distance. I wonder how we looked from above. A dot, slowly moving its way up along a line on a tiny island in a mass of water. An insignificant dot.
Water poured down heavily. They roared as they hit the car. I could drive no more.
"I'm pulling over," I said, parking beside the forest. "I can't drive in this. We'll have to wait it out."
Mel did not say anything.
We stopped and listened to the water and watched the world melt through it. Branches melted away and trunks swirled and bended with the sky. The road was a sudden sea. It was not quiet, but it was a monotonous sound that had the same hum as silence. There was something pleasant about it.
Mel shook off her shoes and crawled into the back seat of the car.
"Come hold me," she said.
I struggled but managed to get out of my seat. It was an SUV so there was a good amount of room.
Mel lay on me and I put my arms around her. I could hear her breathing and I am sure she could hear me as well. My lungs and my heart moving to stay alive.
I felt small and strange as I held her. Was I supposed to be here? Was there an invisible current carrying me my whole life, leading me to this point? Was there another current that carried Mel, waiting to meet me at this exact point?
Two vast monsters were inside my skull. One shouted yes and the other shouted no.
"Do you love me?" asked Mel, taking my hands.
She was soft against me. Soft and warm. I closed my arms tightly around her.
I felt happy in that moment, and I told her yes without a regret in my heart.
We rented a cabin by the shore. It was made of strong wood and held wide windows for looking at the water. It was very lived in and completely furnished with large rugs, fine china, shelves of books, and heavy lamps.
We made it there the morning after spending a night in the car. The rain had stopped then, but the branches dripped and the wood was stained dark from the storm. We heard birds but did not see them.
We had a quick breakfast of eggs and sausages that were left for us in the fridge, unpacked, and went out for a walk along the water. Gray waves edged with white foam scattered the pebbles again and again. They clicked against one another as they were swept up and brought back.
We made our way over larger boulders which became a slope we could not climb. Tide pools trapped amongst the rocks held little crabs. We sat here for a moment at the bottom of the slope. A forest ended at its edge.
Mel saw it first. It was a bear. It came slowly out of the woods and stopped to look at the water. It looked weary. Its fur was wet, but we could see that it was terribly scarred.
"I think it's safe," I said, "but best not make a sound."
We stared at it for a very long time. It stared back with searching eyes. The tide lost count of itself.
It shook for a moment and let out a low, hoarse growl. Then it took a final look into the distance before stepping back and disappearing.
Blue peeked out from behind the clouds and the sun came out later that day when we went to the market to buy groceries for supper.
We grilled a salmon that night and had it with rice and beans.
There was something very alien about the space. We were alone together in what was supposed to be a home, but there was something that made me deeply uncomfortable.
Mel was washing the dishes when she said, "You don't love me."
I froze and turned around to face her. "What's wrong?" I asked. "We haven't fought for a very long time."
"We started our relationship a very long time ago," she said, "but we started abruptly. All this time I felt as though I was a placeholder for you."
I was angered greatly by what she said. I squeezed the blood from my knuckles. "How dare you say that," I cried.
"How long were you going to carry on this act, Jacob?" she asked.
"It's not an act," I said. "I love you."
"You grew into it. You loved the idea of me."
"I love you now," I said. "Doesn't that matter?"
"So it's true," she said, tearing now. "You didn't love me in the beginning."
"We've talked about it. Yes, it was out of the blue, but isn't it rare, Mel? To find somebody that you can get along with so well? It's not worth throwing away."
"I don't care."
She fell into the couch beside me and cried. I leaned over to put a hand on her but she swatted it. "Go away!" she cried.
I kneeled down beside the couch. Her face was turned from me. "Is this why you brought me here?" I asked. "To fight with me?"
"I know the things you say to Viv," she cried. "You aren't happy. You aren't happy."
"Is this about Viv?"
"No. It's not. It's about how you think of me when you're not with me."
"Who doesn't whine?" I told her. "Everybody complains about everything."
"You're hiding things from me. Why are we even together?"
"Because I love you."
"Fuck off. You've demonized me. You've made me responsible for everything bad that has ever happened to you. The fact that you chose not to go away for school, that you don't have a real job, the fact that your family is tense with you..."
I tried to hold her but she pushed me, with more force this time.
"I said fuck off!" she yelled.
We became entangled in a fight. She tried to force me away while I tried to hold her still. She wailed. Her face creased and tears ran down them.
"What do you want from me?" I asked her.
"Something's not right with you," she said. "I can feel it. Go away. You're always so fucking depressed when you're on your own. Why don't you show me to my face? Go home."
I stood up. "Maybe I will."
"Yeah. That's right. Go home. And when your life is still shit, when magic doesn't start happening when you're rid of me, you'll realize that your pathetic sadness is due to yourself."
"Shut the fuck up, Mel."
She got my coat and threw it at me. Keys hit the floor.
"Just get out," she said. "Then you won't have to deal with me anymore."
"You think I won't?"
I picked up the keys. I put my coat on. I put my shoes on with the heels folded under my soles.
"Fuck you," she said. "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Get out."
I slammed the door. It was not too cold outside, but it was dark. The sun was long gone. I did everything loudly to be dramatic. I slammed the car door. I turned the keys too far. I braked too hard. I pushed on the gas too hard.
The road came to life as I drove. The house behind me died in the night.
I did not talk to Mel for a very long time after that. I found out from a friend that she made it home the next night.
I tried to avoid checking up on her online or thinking about her. Some nights were very difficult. Moments like the one we shared in the car would come back to me. I could hear the rain and smell the trees and feel her in my arms.
It was a strange loss, but still I did not feel free. I spoke to Viv a few times. Dan as well. They gave me advice but it was no use when my heart refused to listen.
I hated myself for a very long time. I wondered if it was as Dan had told me, a type of prison; a quiet, living death of me rotting away because I did not have the balls to move an inch into a direction closer to anything. I had no such direction. I had nothing to move towards.
Then I got the idea that if I had somebody else to move towards, I could shut out the thoughts of Mel. I did not know why, but I felt for every step that I took away from her, because we were connected, she would feel it too, she would feel that something in her hands was slithering away like quicksilver through her fingers.
Dan introduced me to a number of girls but it was difficult talking to any of them.
One of them, Sandra, I took out for dinner.
"So what do you do?" she asked me.
"I'm an accounting clerk," I told her.
"Oh, that's interesting!"
And it went on in much the same fashion. She thought I was the most interesting person in the world, but when I had my arm around her or hand in hers or talked to her, I felt like being in the presence of the corpse. I was unwinding as I once did, with my true self dying inside my head watching the whole thing, but I felt as though she was unwinding too. I could not imagine her having another self than this and it scared me that this was all she was. There we were, two bodies moving in monotonous orbit. Two bodies every moment drawing closer toward death.
Nonetheless, it was a purpose I had, so I played along. Sandra and I became an item. She was very happy with me and every time I saw her she was happy.
When she had needs, I satisfied them. "Things will get better, I promise," I told her. "No matter what happens, I'm here for you." Phrases like that. "You're never going to have to go through it alone." The gears inside my body turned and produced this. She was more than pleased to have me.
"So," Dan asked me one day. "Do you love her?"
"I do not believe in love," I said, "and if there's no love, what is the point of living but this? By finding someone anyway, by feeling as much emotion as you can, the biggest fireworks. Is that not really living? Doing this until death? Feeling as much as you can until death, putting as much happiness as you can into your basket until you fall over."
"But Jacob, if love exists, you pretty much do the same thing."
"It doesn't exist."
"But Jacob, are you sure you're feeling anything? Are you sure you're happy? Is that really living or are you just living your death? If you're looking for happiness in others this way I'm not sure you will find it."
After Dan spoke I could feel myself slowly waking up, slowly thawing. I had become stuck in time. The Dan I once knew was not this man in front of me. He was older. And if he was older than I was older and somehow I never knew. Where did the time go?
The way I envisioned it I would meet a girl in a quiet way and we would be able to talk with each other in a special way. We would be able to know each other in a way that we could not know anybody else. It did not happen this way for me. I danced on the edge between sadness and something else I could not find the name of.
I had no such romantic dinners or phone calls or getaways the way I pictured. I had perversions of all those things.
Somewhere out there I had lost myself.
Over the year I worked my way up the chain and became a tax manager. I had my own office.
I was leaving one day when I thought I saw a familiar face across the street. There were too many people for me to sift through the crowds so I left earlier the next day and waited there on the sidewalk for our paths to cross again.
It took a week of anxious waiting but I saw that face again and sure enough, it was Mel.
When she finally noticed me her jaw dropped. "Jacob," she said. "Jacob."
"Hi," I said.
"Well! Look at you!" She laughed. "You look very handsome!"
"You don't look bad yourself," I said, and it was true. She looked much the same, if a little bit older.
We made small talk for a little while there, leaning beside the building while everybody else was going home. Mel worked at a lab, looking at blood samples.
"It's not bad," she said. "Sometimes it can be boring but everybody there is really nice and I do like it there."
"That's exactly how I feel!"
We went for dinner. Memories stirred when I told the hostess we were a party of two. It was not awkward as I was scared it would be. We talked and caught up.
Eventually it got to the question of what to do next.
"I have a place," she said. "It's not too far from here, if you would like to come up?"
"Sure," I said.
We walked the city together. We did not hold hands but I could feel the electricity between us.
Mel lived in an apartment of a quiet neighbourhood. It was mostly residential. Somebody was walking their dog. They nodded at us like we were a couple.
She beeped us into the lobby. The elevator was quiet.
She slowly brushed a hand against mine.
I looked at her. The light was fluorescent and unflattering and buzzed. In front of me was the only girl I felt I really ever knew. She took my hand and I felt whole again.
"I missed you, you know," she said, leaning in.
"I missed you too."
I held her tight and never wanted to move. I was scared she would evaporate right there and I would be left alone again.
We kissed. I thought of her touch many times until then and here I was finally, finally with her. I waited lonely ages for this. We kissed until the elevator opened and she found her key and opened the door to her apartment. It was pitch black but she turned the light on and all at once her life without me here was revealed before my eyes.
"Let me put my things away," she said, taking her coat off. "Sit down, please!"
There was little furniture and bare walls. Something was not right about it. I slowly came to realize what it was.
"Come here," she said, beckoning me to a room.
In the middle of the room was a bed and there were two pillows. The bed was between two tables, both with lamps. One of them was obviously Mel's as there was makeup on it. The other was bare.
"What is this?" I said.
"It's John," she said. "My boyfriend. But he's not here. He's out of town."
He was out of town. I stood there at the head of the bed where she had been living with another man. This was the bed they got up and slept every day and night. This was where they fucked. This room was a space, this entire apartment was a space, where Mel had welcomed this other presence into her life and I could feel it inside my head like a carnivorous demon sizzling behind my eyes.
Tears fell and I leaned back against the wall.
She held my head in her hands and stared deep into me.
"Don't go," she said. "Please?"
"What," I said. "What now? What is supposed to happen now?"
She shushed me and tried to kiss me but I wailed and stepped away from her.
I caught glimpses of other things. It was the washroom they shared. I could see his things on it. His clothes in their closet. Books that obviously belonged to him. A mug that was his.
"You've put me to death," I said as I made my way to the door. "How could you make me so close to you and then abandon me?"
"We didn't know how to deal with each other," she said. "And we still don't. Would you take me back now? Would you?"
I ran out of that building like it was Hell itself. I wanted to take a knife and cut all thoughts of her out of my head. If only it was that easy.
I never spoke to her again. Many days when I was lonely I would try to catch her on her way home, but I would always be hidden from view across the street. I saw her many times.
I caught a glimpse of John once. I saw her walk away with him, and it stirred the memory of seeing something I wanted taken away from me.
I was driving on a road that I had taken once before.
"I'm having dinner with a friend," I told my wife. "I'll be back home tonight."
She gave me a kiss.
I called the office. I told them I was sick.
I just managed to catch the ferry to the island. I stood on the deck the whole time. The wind messed my hair. I watched the mainland shrink and waves take over my view. Waves and clouds. It was a similar day to when I last took the ferry.
I got married and had two kids but the real me felt hidden deep inside my head and I never knew him.
We docked and I drove the road through the island. The road looked pretty much the same for the next hour but I had a feeling that I knew the spot where I wanted to stop. Trees ran on both sides.
I parked on the side of the road as I once did. It was quiet. Just me. Just me standing in the middle of the woods on an island in the middle of nowhere.
The space that my car occupied was the same space that Mel and I had occupied years ago. I stood there with my arms out and tried to feel time in my hands. I was here once. Somewhere out there, somewhere in the past, a boy and girl were there.
The world was silent and grey. I heard nothing. I felt nothing.
I opened the back door of the car and sat in the back for a very long time. I looked up at the same sky that watched different worlds. Worlds where I was young and worlds where I did not exist. In the car I held my own hand and thought about nothing.
I caught the ferry at sunset but there were no colours. Just gray fading into darker gray.
On my way drive home, I saw Choihung Express. It was still there as it always been.
I parked and went inside and it smelled the same. It looked pretty much the same too, except for some minor renovations.
"How many?" the hostess asked.
"Just me," I told her. "Just me."
I sat alone with a cup of tea. The place was filled with people. The seat in front of me was empty.
Was I waiting for someone, I wondered. Had I been waiting for someone this whole time? Had I been looking for someone this whole time, clinging to everybody who would stay with me?
And then it came to me that I never knew who I really was. I was not content with being myself. I had never bothered to meet myself, only desperate for a match to make me feel important, that I was here. My body went on unwinding because I did not give him a purpose.
I am here now, I said. I am waiting for no one.
I sat there long after time had passed me by. I was old and slow and tired. My wife at home was a woman I did not know. I was sitting inside a man I did not know. I had not done the things I wanted to do because I did not know what they were.
But I am here now. I was late, but now I am here.