[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton

[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

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She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

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BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.

The Modern Child

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Disclaimer: this is a piece of satire (not autobiographical!), but then again definitely all art imitates life. The structure is a parody of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid, which depicts a very different world of expectations — simmering beneath the mother’s long string of admonishments and words of advice to a daughter are the layered themes of domesticity, feminity, poverty, and sexuality. But what would the modern mother say to the modern child? I got so inspired once I considered this question that I typed the paragraph below out in 10 minutes in a burst of heavenly creativity 🙂

Here comes Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother meets Girl. 

Learn your phonetics on Mondays with Teacher Tan but don’t speak English to us; practice your Chinese characters before going to the playground; be back on time or else — five sheets of calligraphy; we are helping you to find your passion, so be sure to go for piano on Tuesdays; don’t forget ballet on Saturdays; be a good friendly Catholic girl on Sundays and make three new friends, darling, on each trip to the church; it’s a neighborhood school, so we won’t give you any stress; is it true Amanda did better than you in class?; it’s important to be happy, darling; at least 90 marks on every test is all we ask for, of course; doing well in English and Mathematics is a must!; but doing poorly in Chinese would be a shame to us; no Kit Kats until you memorize your táng shī; this is how you’ll have a good moral character; this is how you make no careless mistakes on quizzes; this is what doing your best means; this is exactly how you make us proud; this is how we know if you’re smarter than the rest; but I don’t ask Amanda for her grades; this is how to ensure that you remember to never, ever get 89.5 again; this is how you make friends with people you like in school; this is how you make friends with people you don’t like; this is how you become a prefect; this is how you get into the GEP [1]; let us fill this out for you; this is how you get into the best primary school in the nation; this is why we know best; Mrs Loh says you are very weak in Science compared to other students; this is what true diligence means; this is what is called full effort; this is how you pull up your grades; why, are you not sleeping enough?; do three mock papers a day, it’s the December holidays; this is how you top the class; time to wake up for school, darling, it’s 5.30am; this is how you earn real self-esteem; you should absolutely aim for 290, dear, it’s not impossible; this is how to become the PSLE [2] top-scorer—why?—because you can (and then you’ll be on the papers); we believe in you; this is how you disappoint us; but still this is how you keep pushing yourself; this is how you set more goals; this is how you achieve them; this is how you hone your leadership; this is how you excel in CCAs [3]; this is how you excel in your CIP hours [4]; this is how you have real passions; oh, darling, because it’s necessary not to be a nerd who can only study; this is how you have straight As; this is how to be filial to your parents; this is what we sacrificed so much for; this is how to be the best; why are your grades dipping?; darling, I know you want to relax, but your A-levels are coming; this is what JC [5] life is like; this is how the world works; what do you want to do in the future?; you can be a lawyer; this is why we always trained you to work hard; this is why you’ll thank us one day; this is how to make us proud, once more; this is how to attain the life we always wanted for you; this is what ‘success’ means; this is when it’s time to apply for Harvard; but um what if I can’t get in?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of child who can’t get into Harvard?

*** THE END ***

Sometimes, I do wish that I could have had a parent who had all the answers in life, but I’m so grateful I don’t. For me, the caricature of the tiger mother resonates not because my mother is one (not exactly), but because, more than anything else, I have to deal with it as an excruciating voice within myself — one that keeps doubting, relentlessly pushes, and never settles. I’ve learned to turn that voice down when it gets too overwhelming and does more harm than good. You do that too 🙂

Footnotes, for those who weren’t in the Singaporean education system, here are the explanations behind some terms (loads of acronyms across the board):

  • 1. GEP: the Gifted Education Programme (about 1% of the national cohort is admitted into the Programme after selection tests in Primary 3; they will undergo an enriched curriculum in 9 GEP schools)
  • 2. PSLE: the Primary School Leaving Examination (a national examination which pupils sit at the end of their final year of primary school education; secondary school admissions are based on your aggregated T-score, with selective high schools having higher cut-off points over the years)
  • 3. CCA: Co-Curricular Activities (non-academic activities that all students participate in)
  • 4. CIP: Community Involvement Programme (most Singaporean schools have specified a mandatory number community service hours under this; it’s now called Values In Action)
  • 5. JC: Junior College (the final two years of high school before university)

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

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It felt like the universe had conspired in magnanimity to lay out before me all the stars it had in its pouch.

There’s a boy seated next to me at the roulette. It’s a round-table congregation of tense, weeping or energetic men (some slightly crazy-eyed); this boy who seems unperturbed by it all; and then there’s me, scribbling devoutly. 

We all stare intensely at the spinning wheel at the center and at the blur of white making its rounds. As the ball swerves intently on the circular track, my mind leaps and stumbles, doubts and hopes. It is a scene of magnificent contrasts and soft ironies: the ball’s mechanical steadiness and the wild rocking of our pendular minds; the slowing wheel and our increasingly hitched breaths.

I feel the boy’s gaze boring into my score-keeping card carelessly lying in the space between us. I cast a cursory glance in my card’s direction–it’s just unkempt rows of crosses and numbers I have been scrawling in red and blue ink, in a clumsy attempt to spot a trend.

Hey, he finally speaks after we’ve both been aware of each other’s presence for the last thirty minutes, you’ve got that number wrong. 

I glance back at my sheet at where his finger points. Oh, you’re right, I say, crossing 32 (red) out and writing 22 (black) in its place.

Thanks.

No problem.

He looks like he’s about to say something else but the ball rolls into place and falls at–

It’s hard to tell by pure sight so we all, in synchronized mesmerization, look up at the screen.

It’s a 0 (zero), in garish green. There’s a chorus of groans, expected not simply because the odds are 37 to 1 but also since 0 is eternally the outlier to any semblance of a pattern. Just when I think that no one has escaped unscathed, the boy taps my card again and grins disarmingly at me when I turn to look at him.

Look at that, he says good-naturedly.

I’m about to say, “Zero is always the hardest to guess; it’s how casinos reap the cash, no?” when I see that the top right of his screen displays in clean-cut font: 

PREVIOUS BET: +3360 credits 

My jaw slacks a little. Subconsciously, it occurs to me then that I only have a woeful 120 credits left (since I just lost). 

Wow, I tell him, you’ve got some crazy luck.

It all seems so unlikely–in my month of wandering nothing has astonished me much, and to now come across, in the twilight of my travels, a moment that is at once abruptly natural and magical in its implausibility–that Littlewood’s Law comes to mind. I think of its theory that one can experience a miracle (odds of one in a million) once a month, and a voice whispers in my head, maybe today’s when something wonderfully absurd happens.

Hmm, it suddenly seems possible.

The 120 credits last me for three more rounds before I realize that I have neither the reason nor the money to stay around. 

I turn my chair to try to spot my father somewhere in this cavernous hall, but he is nowhere to be found amidst the thronging casino masses. 

Are you going to stay? His voice comes up on my right.

I want to say, yes I am because I want to see how much more you can win and what’s your name and hi I am Selina. But I just shake my head and say,

I’ve run out of money. And either ways I feel like trying the slot machines.

I’m here for kicks, he tells me, his eyes shining, I’ve already tripled my credits when I was expecting myself to leave empty-handed.

I’m not quite sure what to reply to that, so I offer him a genuine, buoyant “congrats”.

He lets out a laugh, and continues, Take 500 credits. It seriously doesn’t matter to me.

He sees that I am wavering and passes me a ticket that neatly prints 200 credits, his tone forcefully kind, If you can’t take 500, at least accept the 200 I have as a leftover. Just so.

I feel weird, I tell him truthfully, when I take money from others for free. And I don’t even know you.

Oh, now I can finally ask. What’s your name?

As we march away from the roulette towards the carousel of slot machines, the ticket bunched in my left fist, I am dimly aware of the fact that I have just broken a personal principle this easily under the allure of sustained game of chance–not for algorithmic luck, but maybe, just maybe for Eros & Psyche’s roll of the dice.

I declare boldly, I’m going to at least return you 250 credits.

He snorts. That’s a promise you can’t keep.

Conversation rolls amidst an easy rhythm of button pressing, the animated sound of shuffling reels and unguarded laughs. We don’t ask each other anything that seems too dangerous so we talk about Macau and traveling, pork chop bun and airplane reads, Jay Chou and Joe Hisaishi, winning and losing, and how, for us both, casinos made no sense at all. 

Who’s most like Wes Anderson? 

Hayao Miyazaki. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe. I can think of loads.

Why do they all sound like meshed Spotify Discover Weekly playlists?

As my credits dwindle close to nothing yet again, my father appears in a happy halo softly glowing with the delirium of capitalist success. There’re no awkward introductions because he is too pleased with himself to care. I get 250 credits from him and return it to the boy.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

I’ve got to go, I tell him.

My father, who is counting his tickets and ready to leave, looks up, sees me dawdling, and tilts his head to consider whether he should ask about who this person is but wisely decides not to when he sees the expression on my face.

I’ve got to go, I say again.

Somehow, I just can’t get goodbye out of my mouth. It would do no justice as an ending–it’s too weak, too pale, too irrevocable.

Wait, the boy stares at me and says slowly, you know, a lot of life’s promises aren’t kept–

I look at him and in that heartbeat, feel an impossible urge to tell him that the chandelier lights in the casino happen to be dancing in his eyes there and then, like leaping, crackling, shooting stars, but I seem to have lost the ability to do anything else other than nod. So I just nod.

–But I hope I’ll keep this promise. See you again.

I think about this sentence in my luggage-strewn hotel room, on the zipping cab leaving Cotai in the misty morning as the windows fogged with condensation, in the empty bleak landscape of the departure hall as I drink bland porridge, in the three waking hours on TR2903 across the Java Sea surrounded by the lingering imprint of a short-lived encounter, and as I step through the Changi gates finally back home after 1 month and tasted sea salt in the dust.

I think about it sometimes when I’m in colorful train carriages on a collision course towards some known future. Then, on one rainy and slightly warm morning, on a cab that had fogged windows, it comes to mind, that monochromatic morning when I left Macau on a cab that could not, would not, and did not turn back. My fingertips touch the cold glass and feel again this fierce impulse to draw something, anything, to just remember. But, after a drawn-out moment of indecision and broken vignettes flashing by in a tunneling mind, I can only draw a star. It’s the only effervescence that can be put into strokes.

And I never saw him again. But it has only been 25 days, so who knows? 

In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.

And the rest is rust and stardust.

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月亮忘记了 When the Moon Forgot / 几米 Jimmy Liao

*

The quotes, in order of appearance, can be attributed to: me & my brain, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Nabokov’s Lolita.