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Tuesday, Mar. 01, 2005 - 6:10 p.m.

On the first day of JC orientation, he smelled her faint sweetness before he actually saw her. It was a thin layer of perfume hiding the metallic smell of cigarette smoke, and it took him a few seconds to recognize this. When he turned his head in its direction, he only saw the shape of her back walking away, towards the stadium steps. He had been talking to his friend in the canteen and the way his friend recounted the incident was this: first there was a scent, then she passed behind you, and then it was too late. What did she look like, he demanded, but his friend only smiled.

In the lecture theatre, the boy and his friend sat in the very last row. His friend listened to the principal's welcome speech for precisely one minute before he started to write on a small notepad that the school gave to all the new students. He tore off what he had written and tapped the shoulder of the person sitting below him - pass this to the girl over there. His friend watched the journey of the paper pass from hand to hand, travel down four rows and three seats to the left. He wrote another note, and then tapped another shoulder - give this to that guy at the corner. The two recipients turned their heads, looking around the lecture theatre for the source of their notes, not knowing that they were actually looking for each other. Both notes read: meet me at the school gate at 12:30pm (smiley face).

But the boy was not paying any attention to his friend's arrangement of chance. The boy slouched in his seat, looking for the familiar shape of her back. He had deliberately sat in the last row for this reason. The boy himself smoked only occasionally when he was with friends, and he had no specific attraction for smoking or its conspiracy of discretely passed cigarette packs between seventeen-year olds.

He did not know why, but he was attracted to the dual quality of her scent, the idea that one part of her could be so flawlessly hidden in another.

If there is a comfort to those first three awkward months in junior college, it is the knowledge that the yantao boy who was queuing up at the drink-stall, or the girl who wafted away behind you would turn up again. There were five days of orientation games and he eventually found her on the third day, through friends of friends, little stepping stones of acquaintances that he had to hop across to get to her shore. He then attached himself to her orientation group, claiming that he had gotten separated from his. She was one of the stragglers as the group moved to the next game station on the netball court and so he slowed his pace. When she had caught up with him, he asked with a practiced nonchalance, hey have you got any cigarettes? He knew that she did.

They ditched the group shortly after and headed for a park nearby school. There they sat across from each other at a wooden table, under a Banyan tree that shed its leaves every time the wind passed through it. They talked and smoked two cigarettes each, and she had one more as they started to walk back towards school. He strayed slightly behind her, determined to walk into the wisps of smoke that departed from her lips. He breathed it in, the clouds of grey air that were only moments ago, inside her chest.

And so the first three months of junior college were spent missing lectures without guilt, being in the canteen all the time, falling asleep in the tutorial rooms and sometimes escaping to the park. It didn't feel like school at all, and this was not helped by the fact that everyone was dressed differently in their secondary-school uniforms. They would go to the McDonald's at Ghim Moh, or the hawker centre for lunch, and he would only return to school if there was soccer for P.E. lessons. If not, he would walk with her to the bus-stop outside Cold Storage Jelita and watch her bus disappear down the road. Once at McDonald's she left her pack of cigarettes on the table while she went to buy food; something seized him and he took a cigarette out. He kissed the filter tip, and put the cigarette back into the box.

They were so innocent then, all of them. Junior college was to turn up at the school gate at 12:30pm, to meet a stranger because of a note that so suddenly arrived, to want to know someone because of her scent of cigarettes and sweet perfume, to believe that something permanent and real could be at the end of that note, that smell.

In time to come, they will grow up, lose their illusions, and get married to other people. But the JC days will always be that little reprieve of innocence, when seventeen year-olds grew into eighteen year-olds and discovered the newness of their bodies. It was a time when the memory of a girl's scent was enough, a time when a boy and a girl could walk to the bus-stop in their mis-matched school uniforms, so chaste, so unknowing, so ignorant of their own purity.

note: this is the prose version of "Before (A Poem) 12/1/05"


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