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Saturday, Feb. 05, 2005 - 1:35 p.m.

They first met because she was reading a book on a bus, and he was sitting opposite her. He had looked at the title and was surprised; few people knew that book even existed. He himself had only chanced upon it, at an old bookshop in Tribeca, New York. Excuse me Miss, he said, if you want to ever read again, please stop reading now - you will despise every other book after this one. She smiled. That was page one.

Months later as they were watching the swans at the Botanical Gardens, she said jokingly: you have this disease, to think of everything in literary terms. Everything is a book to you. He marveled at her words for their accuracy. The words had appeared like the rippled waters in a swan's wake. She would repeat those exact words a second time to him, but in that second iteration, as an accusation.

He was a news sub-editor for a newspaper. The glass walls of his office were permanently covered with mutilated front pages that he had taped on, pages of text scarred by marker underlinings, circlings and cancellations. Once, a colleague remarked on the transluscent nature of the glass - that he saw the world through his edits.

In his job, the reality of a news event dictated his choice of words. And so he sought to perform the opposite in his private life, by shaping reality with the words he freely chose. Take the fifteen minutes after their third date. As they walked towards the sea from the Esplanade, his confession was less a declaration of love, and more of a politician's speech. He had practiced it in front of a mirror, re-starting the speech every time he missed the cue for a dramatic pause.

Even his choice of location at the river mouth had been carefully considered: out there was black expanse of the sea, connoting freedom and thus choice. But it was only an illusion of freedom, disguising the fine mesh of the net that was descending on her. He had the script written in his head, lines detailing what he would say, what she would say, and immediately after, his devastating replies. He wanted the script to carry over to his life, and hers. There was only one actor that night, but they both read their lines perfectly. He was devious, if only because deviousness is necessary for nights like these.

That night, she saw through him completely. And she said yes.

Their relationship progressed as follows: first they exchanged SMSs, then ICQ messages, and later on these grew into hand-written notes, poems, letters; after it ended there were explanatory emails and finally, he wrote a book of short stories. But the increasing number of words exchanged is not indicative of the number of things they actually had to say to each other.

He had wanted to write a book of short stories since he was in secondary school. But only later, long after its publication, did he realize that he was really trying to use the book to talk to her. It was a layered and masked way of communication, unlike the direct brevity of a handphone's text message. Each different story was part allegory and part idealization of their history; peeling away the settings, the names, the reader is left with characters who are fragments of him and her.

All along he had thought that she merely cast a shadow over his writing; but in the end even he had to admit that the book was an attempt to change the shape of the object by altering its shadow. The publisher printed ten thousand copies, and little stacks of it were displayed in the windows of bookstores. He had written an entire book to tell her - I would like to talk. But he did not understand these things when he mailed a copy to her address.

Her reply also required effort to decipher. A week after, the same book was sent back to him. They had invented a new type of language, spoken with the exchange of a book.

No letter or note fell out as he flipped its pages, and nothing was written in the blank space behind the front cover. But on page eighty, she left her mark. It was in the story about two mute persons at a bus-stop, desperately conversing in sign language. Why couldn't he and her talk directly anymore, instead of using cyphers? They were exactly like the mute pair, using one language to describe another language to describe themselves.

She did not write a single word, but had simply underlined the last paragraph:

There is insufficient geometry, degrees of angles in the articulation of our hands and fingers. We do not possess adequate words to fully describe the reality of the world. Nothing we say or write, can ever change this state of things.


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