By Peggy Lee
Just remember in the winter
Jason Goh Choon Siong found himself listening to 'The Rose' by Westlife for the twentieth time in a week. Every evening, he dragged his tired body weary not because of physical labour, but of sitting at his desk fighting his inner demons home. On days that were especially bad, which these days were increasing at an alarming rate, Jason found solace in the song, for it served as a source of hope that things had a chance of getting better. Even as he doubted what the lyrics promised, Jason found comfort that someone, somewhere, had walked a similarly slow and bitter path that was his life to be able to write such poignant words that displayed an understanding of how difficult life is and its message of hope.
In the day, Jason made a living as a Public Relations Executive at a statutory board. A quiet and reticent person, the job was the direct opposite of what a typical PR person was supposed to be like, he reflected often, and laughed inwardly at life's little ironies.
Jason turned 40 this year. A short and stout man, Jason never married. He had loved only once, in his twenties, when he met Jo while he was a student in university. Oh, what he wouldn't give to see Jo again! He wondered often how Jo was, and imagined his reaction if he were to run into her on the streets one day. Should he be gracious and say hello, or should he walk by without showing any hint of recognition, he pondered frequently. Establishing contact would bring on a whole host of questions, which would surely include his marital status, occupation and physical appearance. If Jason were to be honest with himself, he would have no qualms about answering these questions if he were rich, successful and good-looking. But unfortunately, this was not the case, and there were many times he felt bitter that life had treated him unfairly. I should have been somebody by now, he thought often, with a career, car, condo, and 2.5 kids. During these dark moments, Jason told himself that it was just his luck that his life was the way it was.
Jason knew that his colleagues were whispering behind his back, but he no longer let it bother him these days. He was too busy fighting his inner demons. Lately, he had been having flashbacks from the past, images that he would rather forget. They came when he least expected; in the middle of an important meeting, when he put on his shoes to go to work, and when he was about to board the bus. He wondered if they meant something.
Jason had not had an easy life. His father, a bus driver with a mercurial temper, was often drunk. He and his mother treaded on eggshells around him, and tried their best to stay out of his way to avoid getting hit. Once, when he was twelve years old and fuelled perhaps by the rising testosterone that adolescence does to teens, he stood up to his father. Jason never forgot the day. His father, as usual, had come home drunk looking for the slightest provocation so that he may unleash the frustrations that his passengers had caused him. More often than not, his mother bore the brunt of his anger, and this time was no exception. When she served him the glass of water that he demanded, she accidentally tripped and broke the glass. As the splinters fell across the floor in a million pieces that reminded him of a kaleidoscope that he once won at a carnival, Jason remembered with a shuddering intensity the split second delight that flashed in his father's eyes, for the man had found an opportunity to lash out at someone. Something snapped inside the timid boy's brain when he saw his father raising his fist for the umpteenth time. He bravely stood in front of the man whom he called "Pa" and said "No". His father, taken aback by the boy's defiance, turned his rage towards him and struck him on his ears. This was why Jason often had to ask people to repeat themselves when they spoke on his left, for the blow had left him with only 30% hearing in his left ear.
His mother, who was by introverted by nature, withdrew even further into herself after that incident, for she felt guilty over being unable to protect her only child. She rarely spoke to him for fear of reproach from the boy, who sometimes looked at her with questions in his eyes that she knew she could not answer. Instead, she did the best she could for him by making sure that his everyday needs were taken care of. But Jason, as a young boy who did not yet understand the intricacies of human emotions and behaviour, mistook her lack of affection as lack of love, and in his teens, joined a secret society.
For two years, Jason hung out with the group. They played truant often, and whiled their time away smoking and drinking at void decks. A few times, they got into staring incidents with other groups which ended in bruises and cuts. But Jason did not care, for he had finally found somewhere to belong. Until one day. The group was hanging out one afternoon at their usual haunt, a void deck near one of the member's home in Bedok, when a rival gang came and attacked them with parangs. Apparently, one of Jason's friends had been a little too friendly with a rival gang member's girlfriend the day before. The fight ended with his friend getting slashed across the right eye, which landed him in hospital for a week. Looking at him lying on the bed, the vision in one eye forever gone because of a petty incident, Jason made the decision to leave the gang. From that day on, he cut off contact with the group and devoted himself to his studies. His mother, although she could not articulate her relief that Jason was picking up the books again, provided quiet support in the form of thoughtful little gestures such as buying him chicken essence during his examinations.
When Jason was 18, his father passed away from a car accident. When he heard the news, the first feeling that he felt was relief, and then nothing. He dutifully made the funeral arrangements, and while his mother wept copiously, not a single tear fell from his eyes at the wake.
After his father's death, Jason put his heart and soul into his studies, for the oppressive feeling that accompanied his father's presence had lifted like a cloud, and he could concentrate better. He made it to the university, and it was there that he met Jo, a petite, dark-haired girl who wore specs. She was his classmate, and Jason found himself drawn to her quiet and gentle demeanour. He courted her, and within half a year, they were officially an item. For the first time in his life, Jason had a taste of how happiness felt like. He thought about Jo all the time, and wondered if she was safe and what she did when they were not together. He called her at least five times a day to check on her whereabouts, and Jo, who did not like conflict, swallowed her impatience and told him each time he asked. One day, they had a disagreement over something he could not remember about now, and she accused him of being too controlling. Jason was taken aback, for in his mind, he was merely trying to make sure she was safe, and he could not understand why she did not appreciate his concern for her. He protested vehemently, and did not speak to her for three days after the incident, so righteous was he. Jo, a pacifist by nature, relented and apologised, and from that point on never complained about his incessant calls. The relationship continued uneventfully for the next two years, until, he remembered very clearly the date, 21 August 1993. He had shown up at the office where she had taken on a temporary job one day, demanding to see her because he could not reach her on her mobile phone for the twentieth time that day. Jo had woke up late that morning and in her haste to leave for work, forgot to bring her mobile phone. As he stood in the reception area, face red with anxiety and fury, demanding at the top of his lungs to know why she did not pick up his calls, something inside Jo snapped. For the first time in her life, she lost complete control of her temper, and as hot and angry tears streamed down her checks, shouted at him to go and never contact her again.
Every morning at 6am, Jason went for a thirty-minute walk at Bishan Park. He did not enjoy the walks, but his doctor had warned him that if he did not watch his diet and start exercising, he would be a heart attack waiting to happen. Jason remembered the concerned tone in which his long-time doctor had delivered her advice, a tone which very few people used with him. Only three people had talked to him in this manner in his life; his mother, Jo once-upon-a-time, and his doctor. I must take care of my health because someone cares, thought Jason, and duly incorporated the morning walks as part of his daily routine.
It was during one of these walks that he first saw her. He had nearly given the walk a miss because it was drizzling that morning. He had been in a bit of a foul mood, left over from an argument with his colleague the day before. He was going over the heated exchange for the umpteenth time in his mind when his reverie was broken by a woman's cry for help. Looking around, he saw her sitting on the tarmac with her ankle twisted at an odd angle in the distance. The first thing that struck him was her hair, that long shiny black waterfall that glinted off the white tank top that she was wearing. Where had he seen that hair before? Before he could decide if he should offer his assistance (for Jason was not one to be late for work, and stopping to help meant that he would be late), a man appeared out of nowhere and helped the lady up. As the couple moved off slowly into the distance, Jason berated himself for being selfish. But these feelings were soon forgotten when the alarm on his watch went off, signifying that his thirty-minute walk was up and he should go home and get ready for work.
Later in evening, after having spent the day ignoring his colleague who had attempted several times to talk things out with him, Jason pondered over the incident in the morning. There was something familiar about the woman, he thought. The hair, the frame, the voice. Try as he might, he could not place her, so Jason soon put it out of his mind.
Three months later, on his usual morning walk, he bumped into her again. At first, he wasn't sure, but as the lady moved closer, it slowly dawned on him who it was. The scenario that he had imagined a hundred, a thousand times in his mind, was coming to pass! His first instinct was to turn and walk away, but something stopped him. The month before, he had gone to the hospital to see a heart specialist for the palpitations he had been experiencing with alarming frequency. After running several tests, the doctor grimly advised Jason that his arteries were blocked and surgery was necessary to unblock them, and duly informed him of the risks, which included death, even though he was of the opinion that it was unlikely in his case. Jason was stunned. He wondered over and over again why life treated him so unkindly, and when the initial shock wore off and his practical instincts took over, Jason decided to get his affairs in order just in case, for his illiterate mother would surely not be able to deal with the messy practicalities of life, he thought. As he was surfing the Internet looking for tips on the things that he should attend to in the event of his untimely death, he came across an article on resolving the past. In that article, the writer postulated that resolving the past would lead to closure and hence, peace. Many years ago, a friend had told him of her belief that the Universe would create situations for people to learn what they needed to learn, and the lessons would keep appearing to them until they learnt it. At that time, Jason had scoffed at her, but somehow, in the face of death, his mind had begun to grow more receptive to different beliefs and possibilities. Perhaps the time had come for him to learn a lesson, he thought.
The lady was fast approaching within hearing distance. This time, I will not run away. This time, I will face things head on, Jason decided. When the she got within hearing distance, Jason called out "Jo?" The lady looked up, and he saw the look of recognition slowly grow in her eyes. "Jason!" she cried. "I haven't seen you in years! How are you?" the words came out in a torrent. They had a short exchange, and Jason suggested that they sit down at a nearby bench.
"You haven't changed much."
"But you have! Look at that paunch!" she laughed, and he realised how much he had missed hearing that throaty chuckle. For the next twenty minutes, they chatted easily about their lives. She had been staying in New York for the last fifteen years with her husband, who had been posted there by his company. They had two kids aged twelve and ten. The family had just moved back to Singapore as her husband needed to take over his family business. They had bought a flat in Bishan and were re-adjusting to life in Singapore well. He, in turn, updated her quickly on his life, for he was not one given to small talk. There was a moment's silence as they both finished their stories, and he debated inwardly whether he should ask her about the incident so many years ago. Even though Jason would never admit it, it still bothered him after so many years, for he had never figured out the reason for Jo's abrupt disappearance from his life. After taking a deep breath, he plucked up the courage to ask her why she did not return his calls after that faithful day so many years ago, when he had shown up at her office.
"Jo, there is something which I'd like to ask you about. I hope you don't mind."
"Sure. What is it?"
"I tried to find you after th... that day, but I couldn't..."
Jo froze, and Jason immediately knew that she knew exactly which day he was talking about. In that instant, he regretted bringing up the matter after so many years, and began berating himself inwardly, as he was wont to do each time he perceived himself to have made a mistake. He felt like a fool.
"I... I'm sorry, I didn't m... mean to..." Jason stuttered, but Jo cut him off.
"No, you deserve an explanation, I owe you one," Jo spoke, and then, taking a deep breath, continued.
"I quit my job that day, went home, packed some clothes, and went to stay with some friends for a while. I changed my number..."
"But why?" Jason couldn't stop himself. "I thought things were going well between us."
"On the surface level."
"What do you mean?"
At this, Jo hesitated, but then continued. "I knew that you loved me very much. You were attentive and caring, and were always there when I needed you. You helped me to solve all my problems big or small for me. Nobody in my life had paid me so much attention before, and I was grateful and flattered. But because you did everything for me, I never had the opportunity to learn. I soon began to feel like a bird in a cage. It was fed and taken care of, but it never knew how to fly. In the same way, your love suffocated me. I loved and loathed you at the same time. I knew that I was weak, and if I had picked up your calls, you would have convinced me to go back to you. And if I did, I would never learn to be independent."
Jason was stunned, for he never had any inkling that Jo felt this way. And to think that all these years, he had thought her petty and childish for blowing up just because he had shown up at her office! He had thought that she should have been glad that he was protective of her. It had never occurred to him that by protecting her, he was holding her back.
"Jo," he began slowly. "I apologise. I never intended to stop you from living your life. I just wanted to make sure you were safe. Forgive me."
"I know, Jason. I should have communicated to you better how I felt. It's just that... sometimes you seemed so angry... and I couldn't find a way to get through to you. If I could turn back time, I would have tried to help you get over your issues. I'm sorry."
On hearing this, Jason drew a sharp breath, for Jo had said something that he had always known subconsciously, but refused to admit. He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. "Don't be, Jo. It's not your fault. I had allowed my past experiences to take hold of my life, and projected my insecurities onto you. I sincerely apologise."
At this, Jo looked at him in the kind way that he remembered, and no more words were necessary between them. Eyes brimming with tears, she gave Jason a hug before leaving, and just like that, the shackles that had held him all those years were broken. As he watched her walk away, her long dark hair swinging behind her, Jason finally understood what closure meant. That day, for the first time in his life, he was late for work.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 1 Jan 2012