Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2004 - 12:37 p.m.
Still, while talking to her in school a few days ago, the boy had (deliberately) casually mentioned that he had once bought a thin white belt from that same shop as well. She had seemed surprised at that fact. This was exactly the reaction he had predicted. Firstly, he had made her feel that they shared a certain fate, if only because of a prosaic situation where they had bought things from a shop that nobody knows about. He does not fully understand why, but has observed that the strange meeting of coincidences between two human being stirs something primordial inside each of us – it emboldens the voice in our head that says, I need to understand how we are linked. Secondly, with that one offhand remark, the boy had turned himself into a question. He was no longer just the joker on the swim team. He was a swimming pool of water, having both a surface and a depth, a history to his being. There was a history to his water, a past where someone else had swum through it. He was - someone who had once bought a thin white belt for a girl. The preliminary question (there is even a planned hierarchy here) that he had intended for her to think was: who was this girl he had bought the belt for, why does she like thin, white belts? And the inescapable, subsequent question that he had turned himself into was this: what is he like as a boyfriend? Again he doesn’t fully understand why, but he has observed that a relationship always begins with a question, and the duration of the relationship is the duration of discovery, to find out exactly where the Other’s thoughts originate from.
And so he listens again to the voicemail, in which she says something that he has always desired but did not expect to hear. He hears a car roar past in the background, followed by her voice: “I really like you.” Another car roars past and then he hears the final beep indicating the end of the voicemail. The boy smiles to himself and thinks, I really like you too. He ends the call and puts the phone down on the table. His friend looks up at him from the magazine for a second, and then goes back to it, flipping to the next page. For the rest of the day, as he takes the bus home, as he unlocks the door to his home, he hears the sound of her voice inside his head. He attempts to analyze her boldness, which increases in attractiveness the more he thinks about it. It was hard for the boy to imagine her being so forthright in school, but he reconciles the disparity by arguing that he had never really studied her deeply before (he lies).
The next two days in school, he avoids going to the places where she might go.The boy believes that even though it is painful for both of them (especially after her voicemail confession), the pain will be remembered as a scar that both of them will wear, a testament to how much they like each other. Friday evening, just before the dinner, he makes a mental list of things to say. With six of them at dinner, it is unlikely that there will be many silent moments, but the boy recognizes the danger of silence, which says we have nothing to talk about. The mental checklist contains a spectrum of topics, specifically selected to emphasize the breadth of his thought (girls like finding out what goes on in a boy’s head). What does she think about the new vice-principal, how will the latest amendments to the Law of the Sea affect Singapore’s ports? Within the mental list, the boy even decides where he will agree with her, and where he will disagree. When he arrives at the noodle bar, he does not see her at the table. He sits down and asks one of his friends if she is coming. The friend shakes her head and asks, didn’t she leave a message on your cell phone? He leans back in his chair almost imperceptibly, puzzled but still managing a facade of non-chalance. He orders his food as he would normally do but still the puzzle occupies his mind. The boy runs her voicemail through his head repeatedly, attempting to discern some hidden meaning in her words. When the waitress places a bowl of steaming noodles before him, his glasses fog up slightly. And as the mist clears from his lenses, he understands. He had misheard her voicemail. She had actually said, “I’d really like to, but…” The rest of the message was lost in the roar of a passing car, but the reason she could not be here for dinner was of no consequence – only her absence mattered.
A foolish mistake, the boy smiles to himself. He uses the chopsticks to pick up his noodles, and carries on talking to his friends; nothing is changed in his behavior. But if his friends were more observant, they would have noticed that something had gone out of him. Strands of noodles were sliding off his chopsticks before he could put them in his mouth. There were no silences during dinner as the group of friends joked and laughed about school, though no one spoke about the Law of the Sea. A foolish mistake, the boy smiles to himself. He smiles only because he dares not cry. The boy knows that hurt will follow, maybe on the way back home, maybe when he excuses himself to the bathroom and looks into the mirror, perhaps even sooner; he knows that the lie of his mild interest in the girl can no longer hold. There were five people at the table, talking and eating noodles, but only one of them – a boy, was sadder at his own understanding.