By Bryan Cheong Sui Kang
When used to reserve a seat at a coffee shop, the tissue packet has the dubious but highly useful distinction of being an anonymous signature: it is personal enough to be a territorial marker (sort of like urine, only reusable), but since territory-marking seems ever so slightly rude, people prefer that their markers don't give away any exact details of what their owner's identities are. So it helps that the only name plastered across an archetypical tissue packet is the faux-Italian brand name of its manufacturer, probably printed on a pastel-coloured background with irrelevant flower-based marginalia.
A tissue packet lying square on a seat or table has the same qualities as the hypothetical watch-in-the-wilderness. It is a deliberate object; it couldn't have arrived at the table or chair on its own accord, and some Watchmaker evidently has a Higher Purpose for it and meant Something when he or she put a tissue packet precisely there.
Andy did not think of this when he put his timidly unused tissue packet at the edge of a two-seater table at the far corner of the coffee shop. That is not to say, however, that Andy isn't a particularly thoughtful person; he rather prided himself as a man of few words but many thoughts, and as self-descriptions go this one's actually quite accurate. The coffee shop was crowded and had few empty seats left, and so Andy conjectured that his placing a tissue packet on a table to guarantee a seat on his return with his food was a justifiable necessity. Several other tables also had similarly generic tissue packets placed on them, and so Andy further conjectured that it was a common and socially acceptable practice. He wondered why, then, he still felt guilty every time he used the tissue packet territorial marker, and was still troubled by his seemingly inexplicable feelings of shame when he returned with his meal.
He bought lor mee, which Andy greatly disliked, but he'd blurted it out when the terse-tongued noodle-seller demanded what he wanted, and for all his self-debated thoughts about changing his order after that initial verbal flub, Andy didn't dare to do so. He was, however, more than a little slow and reluctant while making his payment, and felt that that was punishment enough for the noodle-seller for giving him lor mee for lunch.
When Andy returned to his small square table and pocketed his tissue packet, he was alarmed to note that a second tissue packet had been placed at the table. Andy didn't like having to share tables. He found that it somehow made his food seem less palatable, and what with his having inadvertently ordered lor mee, seeing that second tissue packet came as quite a blow.
Andy also immediately noticed that this second tissue packet was very special. Instead of the usual pastel-background-cum-brand-name packaging, this particular packet was made entirely out of clear and unmarked cellophane. It was nothing but pure uncoloured plastic, through which you could see, unhindered, the paper tissues folded inside. It was utterly nameless, and hence utterly unique. Andy had never seen anything quite like it before, and was temporarily almost distracted from his disappointment of having to share his table with the tissue packet's owner.
She was a woman, the tissue packet's owner, who arrived at Andy's table (which was the tacit name Andy had given to it) with a plate of rice and several sorts of leafy vegetables. The woman, Andy noticed, unlike almost everyone else (including Andy) did not use a tray to carry her plate. She instead used her bare fingers to grip the plate's edge.
Her outfit had no pockets. It consisted solely of a teal skirt and a blouse that (unlike her wordless and nameless tissue packet) read, in capital letters:
In other words, she wore what any ordinary woman would have worn. This rather disappointed Andy. He'd expected something more special from someone who owned a tissue packet like that, and who refused to use a tray to carry her plate.
As she returned that supremely anonymous tissue packet to her purse, the normally unspeaking Andy (in a verbal flub akin to the one that got him the lor mee) noted aloud, "That tissue packet is very special."
Visibly startled that Andy was speaking to her, the woman answered delicately, "Yes, they came free when I bought something else."
"Oh, what was that?" Andy asked. It seemed the right thing to say.
"I can't remember."
The woman had put away her purse and the tissue packet could no longer be seen.
"It's very special," Andy noted again, "I wonder who made it."
"I don't know. You see," and here her voice dropped to a whisper, as though she were repeating some secret, "they didn't print anything on the packets."
She paused, in a manner that made Andy feel compelled to make a comment in reply.
"I know. I could tell."
They stopped talking and ate in silence. Each of them tried to avoid eye contact and stared down into their respective plate or bowl. Andy grew shifty in his seat in discomfort, not because he was having a meal with a complete stranger with whom he was trying his best to avoid having any further conversation, but because staring through his strong prescription glasses (Andy was myopic) down at something as close as the bowl under his nose was starting to give him a headache. Also, a mild crick was beginning to form at the back of his neck.
The woman, whose name Andy had not asked for, having finished off half the contents of her own plate, discretely stood up and left. Andy was still eating. He quickly lifted his head, not to look at her retreating back (although he did do that), but to ease the pressure growing in his head and neck. Someone in a blue uniform cleared the woman's plate and cutlery. Although he didn't want to, Andy dutifully ate every last strand of lor mee in his bowl before he left.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012