The Things We Lost to the Silence
By Chang Ya Lan
On the day he returned to the country, a small cluster of trees, visible in the distance from her bedroom window, was destroyed in a landslide caused by a continuous, 18-hour rainfall. There were no casualties; no one lived close enough to the small hill to bear the impact of the landslide. After sliding and tumbling to their demise in the silence of the night, the uprooted trees lay sprawling lifelessly at the bottom of the hill, and the most anyone could say about them was that they were an inconvenience. This incident, too insignificant and not nearly as dramatic as the closure of a road leading to a major expressway, did not make the 9 o'clock news. Still, the sudden appearance of an uneven brown plain of nothingness where the trees used to be induced her to look out of her bedroom window much longer than she normally would. She missed the sight of the trees with almost a rueful wistfulness.
The weather continued to be wet and sticky – warm despite the rain because of the perpetual humidity – when they met in a busy café downtown. The text message he sent her two days prior was short and to the point: "Hi... I hope you're still using this number. I'm back in Singapore for a few days and I was wondering if you'd like to meet for a catch-up coffee?" He did not bother to sign off, as if assuming that his number would not show up on her phone as an unknown one. He assumed wrong. But there was no mistaking who it was: the lazy omissions of apostrophes, the lack of capitalisation, the unnecessary spaces within the ellipsis – trademarks of his text messaging style, one that used to be familiar to her.
She wondered if anything else about him had stayed the same and was surprised when she arrived at the café ten minutes late and found him already seated by the window, gazing out at the trickle of people ambling past, his face expressionless. He always sat by the window where he had the best view of the city. He liked looking at the city, watching people dawdle lazily by in crude, messy contingents. He once said that it provided a nice counterpoint to his harried, hassled life, and that he liked to have the illusion that he might have the option of choosing another life someday.
She squeezed past a family with two strollers and a crying toddler to where he was seated. As she sat down, he looked up. Their eyes met. At the back of her mind she noted that he was still the same fair-skinned, angular face, the same spiky hair, the same neatly-pressed shirt tucked casually into a pair of jeans. This scene, right here, her meeting him for coffee, was deceptive in its dull normality, and for a split second, it was almost as if he'd never left.
He smiled, tentatively. "Hello," he said. "It's been a while."
It had certainly been a while, and she thought him banal for pointing it out, almost as if he was accusing her of losing track of time. She knew how long it had been, though she'd stopped counting the days a long time ago.
"Hi," she said. She sat down and wedged her handbag between the small of her back and the back of the chair. "I can't believe it's really you."
"I know. It feels a bit unreal. How have you been?"
"I've been fine. Thank you. And you?"
"Great, I've been great. Glad to know you've been fine."
"Yes, I have."
Their clumsy attempt at a conversation came to a standstill. The faint echoes of the loud music from the record store next door failed to cover up the silence between them; neither did the low buzz of activity around them drown it out.
She decided it was time to place an order. She reached for the menu and perused it, all two pages' worth. Hazelnut, caramel latte, vanilla mocha. Iced tea, iced passion fruit tea, iced lemon tea. Why did she even bother? She'd sworn off sweetened and flavoured coffee a long time ago, and she was never much a fan of iced tea.
"I'm getting an iced latte," she informed him. She noted the faint smile of recognition on his face. "Have you decided yet?"
He nodded, then craned his neck, trying to catch the attention of one of the two waiters that were fighting hard to cope with the overflowing weekend crowd. She caught the eye of one first and motioned for him to come over.
"What can I get you?" The waiter's forced friendliness failed to mask his impatience.
"One iced latte, and..."
"An espresso, please."
She was surprised at his drink of choice, and as the waiter scurried away with their orders, the question was at the tip of her tongue. But it didn't seem appropriate to ask, even if it was just about an espresso.
They settled back in their seats, both looking at the other expectantly. He had locked his fingers together and folded his hands across his belly, the same way that he used to before. What was different, and surprisingly so, was the unusual display of awkwardness on his part. She thought that it was only appropriate and polite for him to initiate a conversation since he was the one that asked her out, but as he continued sitting across from her in silence, she chose to absolve herself of the discomfort of the situation and undertake the task instead.
"So what are you in Singapore for?" she finally asked.
"Business," he answered. "I just came back a couple of days ago to check on the Singapore branch, make sure things are running smoothly."
Of course it was business. If he'd wanted to come back for leisure, he would have done so years ago. Throughout their friendship, she'd never thought he would be the one to leave and give up his whole life in a place where he couldn't bear to leave, while she was always the one banging on about wanting to leave. Funny how things turned out sometimes.
"That sounds lovely." She didn't intend for her words to come out sounding patronising. To blunt the edges of her words, she added, "Have you noticed anything different about the country?"
"Yes, I have, as a matter of fact. I didn't recognise Orchard Road when I was here yesterday – there are so many new shopping malls and some of the old ones have disappeared. It was rather disorienting. And, also, while I was going back home from the airport I noticed something that looked like the London Eye, until my brother told me it's Singapore's version called the Flyer."
She laughed politely and nodded, but she didn't quite agree. Orchard Road didn't seem that different to her, and the Flyer had been overlooking the Marina Bay area of the island for as long as she could remember.
"It feels like the Flyer has been there for so long that I don't notice it anymore."
"Really? It was the first thing I noticed on my way back. Have you been on it?"
"No. I mean, I do live here; that takes away some of the attraction. Besides, I heard it's ridiculously expensive."
"Oh yeah? I'd love to take a ride on the Flyer. I bet it's cheaper than the Eye. That's about 15 pounds for a ride."
"Is that 45 Singapore dollars?"
He paused as he did a quick mental calculation, then said, "Yep, more or less."
"Wow, that's really expensive."
Before their conversation could continue, the same burnt out waiter arrived with their drinks. Hers was a tall frosted glass with a layer of white on top of a milky light brown; his was a plain tiny porcelain cup. He added a cube of sugar to his espresso, stirred, and took a sip.
"How's the espresso?" she asked.
"It's fine, thank you," he answered. "How's your latte?"
She took a sip. "I've had better in Paris."
"I didn't know you went to Paris."
"I went just last year." She went with her fiancé, but she chose not to volunteer that information. "It wasn't quite what I expected."
"Was it a lot dirtier and less romantic than how the movies have made it out to be?"
This time, her laughter was genuine. "Yes, exactly. I'm guessing you thought the same?"
Their agreement on at least one thing seemed to have put him in a more relaxed mood. He leaned back in his chair and draped an arm over the back of the chair. He smiled wryly, lazily, and said, "Doesn't everyone? I haven't met a single person who's been to Paris that didn't have his expectations shattered."
"But central Paris was beautiful. You know, the Right Bank of the Seine?"
He shrugged, not particularly bothered to comment. "I didn't really like Paris. Anyway, did you stop by London? It's just a channel away."
The iced latte suddenly seemed to stick in her throat as she was seized out of nowhere by a wave of nervousness that she had initially felt, and which she thought she had suppressed. Averting her gaze, she forcibly gulped down the coffee and put down her glass.
Did she stop by London? She would have stopped by London for sure. London was one of the cities that she most wanted to visit, and it was just a channel away from Paris, easily accessible by the Eurostar. She was keen to take the same journey that Julian Barnes took, the very journey that inspired the last short story in his Cross Channel collection. Barnes would have disapproved of her ardent pursuit of the writer behind the stories, but it wasn't quite akin to stealing a piece of Somerset Maugham's gate; and so she would have taken the Eurostar from Gare du Nord to St Pancras, and she would have seen London – the famous Wimbledon stadium where champions were crowned, the romantic Westminster Bridge that inspired Wordsworth, and the resilient Houses of Parliament that survived World War II.
When Tommy suggested making London a stop on their end-of-year holiday trip, the first thing she thought of wasn't all the sights she could see, or even taking the same train ride that Julian Barnes took. The first – the only – thing that came to her mind was a conversation she had four years ago with the same person from whom she was sitting across now, in another café that served much better coffee. That day, four years ago, she felt the same as she did all the other times that they met: it was just another day, one day out of the many others that came before, and the many more that were to come. As she sipped on her iced latte, she tried recalling what she made a mental note to tell him the day before they met... until he said her name in a tone that she wasn't accustomed to hearing. She instantly looked up at him and saw the face of someone who looked like he had forgotten how to smile.
"I don't know how else to say this," he said. He took a deep breath. "I'm just going to say it. I received an overseas job posting. I'm afraid it's going to be a permanent one."
You didn't think much at such moments – couldn't think much. Couldn't analyse why such an announcement knocked the wind out of you, couldn't fully comprehend the implications of his drastic change in life plans, couldn't formulate a response that you'd be proud to lay claims to at a later date. So you did the best you could; you did the best you could with what you had, but you did the best you could.
"England. London, to be precise. Where you've always wanted to go."
"You don't sound too thrilled."
"Oh, no," she said, too quickly. "I'm happy for you, of course. It's great. Working in London – that's fantastic."
He looked like he was about to say something. Call her bluff, maybe. Instead, he smiled blandly and said, "Thanks. I'm glad I have your support."
They sat in silence for a while. She wanted to press for further details – when was he leaving? What exactly did he mean by 'permanent'? Was he ever going to come back? When did he know? – but didn't say a word. Did she not want to know? But she was happy for him; she had to be. She said as much, and she would never lie to him.
When the silence stretched beyond the limits of what was comfortable, he volunteered the details himself. He found out a week ago, but didn't want to say anything to her until it was finalised; he was pleased about the offer because it would be a good advancement of his career; at the moment there were no plans for him to shift back to the Singapore branch once his London position had been finalised; and yeah, he supposed that meant it was pretty permanent.
She took it all in wordlessly, then bravely attempted a smile and patted him on the hand. She snatched for words from thin air with a growing sense of desperation as her mind yawned and faded. She told him how thrilled she was and how she was sure it would be a great opportunity for him. She also took great pains to tell him how proud of him she was and made the effort to joke about being jealous because she had always wanted to live in London. Soon after, the tension in his face disappeared and they were laughing again in the manner they always did that had come to define their friendship, this time over the possibility of her stalking Roger Federer from Roland Garros in Paris to Wimbledon in London. If that were to happen, he promised that he would offer his apartment as a place of refuge for her, and support her quest with lots and lots of moral support.
She eventually told Tommy that she had no interest in visiting London, now or ever. Tommy tried to present his case for London to her, even tempting her with promises of Wimbledon tickets, but she held her ground. They didn't go in the end.
Back to his question: Did she stop by London? It was a simple 'no', but it wasn't just a simple 'no'. Her answer carried with it implications and representations she wasn't sure she was equipped to make, and as she glanced at him from the top of her glass, she wished she could penetrate the veneer of casualness that he was perpetually wearing. That, too, did not change.
Finally, she steadied herself and said with as much nonchalance in her voice as possible, "London wasn't on the agenda."
Was he disappointed? It was hard to tell with that ever-present smile on his face, that mask of civility that hardly ever slipped – yet something else that didn't change. It had always been hard to guess what he was feeling unless he told you explicitly; but then, she wouldn't know what that was like. His private moments were arduously and jealously reserved for himself and himself only. To the rest of the world, her included, he was jovial, cheerful, and easy-going. It made it easy for her to choose to avoid confrontations with him – and it was a choice she made repeatedly.
"That's surprising. I thought you've always wanted to go to London."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't my decision." The lie came out faster than she could think, and now the damage was done.
"Really." He cocked an eyebrow and tilted his head sideways. "Whose decision was it?"
This should be easy. No one should ever struggle so hard to tell the truth, and she'd only ever fumbled at telling lies. But that lie wasn't too difficult, was it? And if omissions of the truth were lies, she'd be an expert at lying by now.
She reached for her glass and choked down the rest of her drink, after which she began nibbling on the straw. She knew that he noticed; such things didn't escape his sharp attention to detail undetected.
"Tommy's," she finally said.
"Who's Tommy? Boyfriend?"
"What does that mean, kind of?"
"He's my fiancé."
A quick flash of... something across his face, and a split second later, it was gone.
"You're engaged." He said it simply, tonelessly. No dramatic outburst, no over compensatory cries of congratulations. Not much of a response – his steely gaze, that half-smile playing on his lips, that impenetrable nonchalance. He didn't look like he particularly cared, let alone minded. "Thanks for telling me."
She couldn't tell if he was joking and so she wasn't sure if she should feel indignant at his remark; but she did anyway. She wasn't the one that left for London and never looked back. Four years of silence – what was she to do, drop him an email out of the blue announcing her engagement? She would have no basis on which to assume he even cared.
"Look, it wasn't deliberate – "
"It's okay," he interrupted. "Congratulations all the same. A shame he didn't let you go to London. I thought of you when I watched Roger Federer win his fifth Wimbledon title."
Her obsession with the tennis star was well-documented between them, and it all started with her chancing upon Federer's match against Mark Philippoussis in the 2003 Wimbledon when she was aimlessly channel-surfing one night. At championship point, she was so excited and enthralled that the first thing she did was to call him and gush about the most amazing tennis match she'd just watched. He gently pointed out to her that it was the first tennis match she'd ever watched, then went on to spend the next hour patiently explaining to her the scoring system and technical tennis terms. The next day, they went shopping for a tennis racquet; the next week, he started teaching her the basics of the game. A few months later, they were playing regularly.
She shouldn't be surprised that he remembered. But she was. Just like how she was surprised when she received his text message. Four years of silence tended to get deafening after a while.
"Of all the things to remember about me, you remember my obsession with Federer. I can't believe it."
"Why wouldn't I? I remember everything, remember?"
Yes, he was the one with the excellent memory. On her birthday he took her to the Fullerton for dinner after taking extra care to be cryptic about his plans, valiantly dodging her questions about where they were going. It was only when they crossed the Singapore River on Cavenagh Bridge that he finally told her, "Oh, by the way, we're having dinner at the Fullerton." After dinner, when she couldn't contain her curiosity anymore, she finally asked him why.
She couldn't remember if she expected a different response. Maybe she did. Mostly, she didn't expect much of anything, which was her modus operandi of choice when it came to him. And so she was flabbergasted but touched when he told her, "Because you've never eaten there before." The question was at the tip of her tongue when she remembered making a throwaway comment to him to that effect a few months ago when they walked past the fancy hotel on their way to City Hall.
He had an excellent memory, or he took note of what she said; either way, she struggled to comprehend the enormity of his gesture. She'd had a handful of boyfriends in her lifetime, even some that proclaimed they loved her, but none of them had ever taken her to the Fullerton for dinner. At the same time she knew better than to read anything into it at all. It was simply the kind of person he was – generous to a fault, unhesitant to splurge on the people he cared about, and her birthday dinner was just another stanza in the epic poem of all the nice, thoughtful things he'd done for people. It was just who he was. That was all.
"I see that hasn't changed," she finally said.
He shrugged and took another sip of his espresso. "Did you expect it to?"
Did she expect it to? Did she expect at all? She had no room for expectations when he'd ceased to be anything to her but a piece of her personal history. She had no basis to expect anything from someone who no longer existed. It wasn't rational; she insisted on being rational.
"No. It's just – four years. You know."
He knew. He knew, and he bristled. For the first time since she sat down, his mask had slipped, and he regarded her with a touch of resentment in his eyes.
"Are you really pinning that on me?"
His sudden animosity was not what surprised her; it was the fact that he showed it. His appetite for a confrontation with her seemed voracious, as if he was releasing four years' worth of pent-up bitterness and unexpressed anger in the mere span of five seconds. She couldn't recall the last time she saw him look so close to angry, because she never did; and now that she was face to face with it, after four years of cold, dead quiet absence, she couldn't choose avoidance anymore.
"Are you really saying I shouldn't?"
He snorted, incredulous. "On what basis?"
"You never wrote. Never emailed, never called. You just left."
"Are you serious?"
"Do I look like I'm joking?"
He stared at her wordlessly, holding her gaze until she looked away. She was indignant, she was defiant; she knew she wasn't wrong. And yet, there was something in the way that he was looking at her which made her look away.
He said, "You didn't say goodbye."
On the day he left for London, she stayed behind in the office to work on tasks that were due two weeks later. She stared at textbooks with impossibly small prints and pages after pages of court documents until her eyes started to burn. She fell asleep at her desk and woke up with a jolt when her phone informed her that it was midnight. At 12.05 a.m., the Singapore Airlines flight bound for Heathrow Terminal 3 took off into the dark expanses of the shapeless night sky. At 12.05 a.m., she packed up her things and finally left the office.
How had she felt when he left for London? How did she feel when he told her that he was leaving for good? You could only do the best with what you had, but she didn't have a lot. Was that true, though, or merely an excuse? Time made it difficult, if not impossible, for her to tell. Was she honest at all that day, telling him she was thrilled about him leaving, that she thought it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up? Could she not have said something meaningful for once instead of falling back on tired recycled jokes that ultimately meant nothing? They laughed off an awkward situation that day the same way they consistently chose to react to past near-incidents that would have caused ripples in their friendship, disturbed the status quo, forced them into decisions that they thought they couldn't make.
"I..." She couldn't say it, couldn't defend herself. She couldn't say it then; no reason for her to be able to say it now. She had stopped thinking about it in the four years that had passed without him in her life. The reasons never made much sense to begin with, and in the four years that she stashed them away at the back of the closet, the mildew that had grown and accumulated eventually obscured any logic they might have initially possessed. She couldn't see him after that because she felt a lump in her throat that quickly escalated into a knot, then a rock, whenever she thought about his absence. She couldn't see him off at the airport because she was afraid of what the sight of his back disappearing behind the departure gates would do to her. She couldn't see him at all because she wasn't prepared to bear the consequences of an impulsive confessional moment that wagered everything that they'd built that had come to mean much more to her than she was able to say. She couldn't do it; she had too much to lose. She had everything to lose – his friendship, him. Losing him. It was unbearable.
"Forget it. Forget it. Forget I said anything. Just forget it."
I'm sorry, let's not do this. I still care about you, I'm so glad you're back. I have missed you so much over the past four years that I don't even know where to begin. I'm so glad you're back. Please don't go again.
"So when's the wedding?"
"We haven't set a date yet."
"Better do it soon. I hear more people are getting married in Singapore these days. You wouldn't want to find that the hotel of your choice is fully booked when you get round to booking."
"True. The Fullerton's pretty popular."
"Yeah. Tommy insisted."
"Was a dream of yours if I recall."
"Hence he insisted."
"Weren't you just joking though?"
"Well, I guess he missed the subtext."
"Could be worse, I guess."
"Well, anything could be worse, couldn't it? Like marrying your ex-boyfriend from hell."
"I'd rather not marry at all then."
"I wouldn't allow you to marry him anyway."
"Since when did I need your permission to marry?"
"Since you demonstrated how you always fell for the wrong kind of guy. Which... yeah, was pretty much ever since I've known you."
"Well, you'd be glad to know that Tommy isn't one of those guys."
"That's nice. Though I wouldn't know, considering I've never met the guy."
"Just take my word for it, okay?"
"Okay, if it makes you happy."
"Yes. It does."
They smiled at each other. Outside, the rain finally stopped falling.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011