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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005 - 8:22 a.m.

The salesgirl at the bookshop is carrying out an inventory check, counting all the different greeting cards slotted into the large white shelf. Birthdays, Condolences, Anniversaries. A quarter of the shelf contains cards for couples and lovers, some with the phrase "I love you" already printed on. All these require is a signature. The girl has worked in the bookshop for almost two years, and she has noticed that this quarter of the shelf is always untouched, except during Valentine's Day. She asks herself if this is due to an intrinsic Asian tacitness about love, or merely another instance of the legendary pragmatism. Do people in this country write love letters at all?

The old chicken-rice seller is wiping the glass screen of his stall with a white rag while his wife squats next to a red plastic bucket filled with soapy water and washes the plates. In all his life, he has never taken out a piece of paper and written her a love letter, he does not know what Valentine's Day is, and has never spoken to her tenderly. But as his wife struggles to drag the bucket to the nearby drain, he immediately drops the rag and helps her. The visual is of an old couple both wearing black PVC boots, pulling a red plastic bucket full of water across the slippery hawker centre floor. All the while, not a single word is spoken. The mark of this generation is not that of love, but of duty.

She enters the recitation room late and sees with fresh horror, that he has taken her usual seat. She quickly sits in the nearest chair and watches his reaction; he is slouched in the seat, disinterestedly watching the teacher write on the blackboard. Maybe he hasn't seen it yet. His file is on the table, that slender curve of white laminated wood that emerges from behind the chair, wrapping around its occupant like a human arm. Like practically every other table surface in school, it has been vandalized by students who have peeled and broken off bits of the laminate, when they weren't penciling on its white surface. The girl tries to recall what she had last written on it, a difficult task with the repeated cycles of writings and erasures. Did she use his name or his initials? Did she use embarassing words like 'love' and 'cute'? It would not be hard for him to identify the owner of the message. But then if he did, maybe she wouldn't have to talk to him this way anymore. She was like Rosalind in As You Like It, pinning notes on trees for Orlando, but on a different kind of wood. How she hated that book in literature class. So she was caught in that excruciating middle, between hoping he would find her message, and wanting his file to cover it forever.

They talk on the phone and exchange emails everyday, but the phrases of "I love you" are typed or ennunciated as afterthoughts, as if the relationship would not be valid without the continual re-statement. They are both lawyers but at different firms, and while his desk is innundated with letters, advisory notes and drafts of business contracts, hers is filled with the annulments of marriage. She told him once, it's funny that your work deals with the making up contracts, but my work is all about their unjoining. He rubs his eyes and looks out of his office window at the opposite building. He has a line of sight to her office but it is just a little too far to actually see her, though the light in her office is switched on. They are both working late into the night again, drowning in stacks of papers, drafting documents for clients. He writes fifty letters a day, but none of them addressed to her. He is dissatisfied with this realization and thinks about calling her, but then decides not to. Instead, he walks over to the wall and turns off all his office lights. Then he turns them back on, and off again, and on, and off. It is the first time he has done this. He continues this cycle unabated until finally he sees her reply of light, a similar beacon flashing in the darkness.


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