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Tuesday, Mar. 08, 2005 - 4:12 a.m.

He exits the comedy club alone, with a crescendo of laughter behind him. If the stand-up comic had noticed the man in the audience, he would have doubted his own talent at making people laugh. The man sat at a table by himself, stoic, and with his eyes closed for the entire time he was in there. He was listening, but not to the comic's impersonation of government ministers or uniquely Singaporean foibles. The man worked as a sound engineer in a recording studio so his sense of hearing was acute, and he could sift through the aural layers of the audience's voices, almost able to hear the individual auditory traces. He did not come to the comedy club to laugh or to look for her, because he understood the finality of their parting. The truth was that he had come here looking for the sound of her laughter, but he had not found it in this place.

On the way home he stops at a kopitiam, where a few old men are seated at the table next to his. They talk loudly in Cantonese and are watching the television fixed to the top of a pillar; it is showing highlights from the day's parliamentary proceedings. They periodically take sips from their warm bottles of Tiger beer and break into laughter when one of them makes a particularly snide comment. The man pokes at the soft doughy cubes of his fried carrot cake and considers if he will ever find her sound again. Was he looking for the semblance of her laughter in another person, or just that laughter of hers alone, removed from all physical bodies? He wasn't sure.

They had spent an entire night at a bus stop once, just the two of them, laughing so much that by the time morning came their shoulders and lungs were exhausted. They had taken the wrong bus trying to get to a friend's chalet somewhere in Changi and were stranded along a deserted road. It began to rain and they were trapped. Perfectly vertical streams of raindrops fell from the edge of the bus-stop's orange roof, transient bars of water that they could not cross. They both saw a large black bird flying in the rain. She tried to track the disappearing bird, and he saw how her eyes caught every flash of lightning in them.

Somehow after the kopitiam, he had ended up here again at the end of Old Changi Road. The last bus slows as it nears the bus-stop, but he watches it go by. The bus-driver had looked at him, a solitary figure on the battered plastic bench sliding away. Later, over a thick cup of black coffee at the interchange, the bus-driver will remark to his colleagues about how there is a crazy man waiting alone at the bus-stop near the end of Old Changi Road. Immediately after he says that, the bus-driver will wonder what that crazy man was waiting for.

At the bus-stop, the man thinks that it is quite difficult to differentiate between laughing and crying. They both involve the same facial muscles, the open mouth, the tightened cheeks, and in extreme cases, the inevitable appearance of tears. When he was young, he had punched his brother very hard once, and he distinctly remembers not being able to tell afterwards if his brother was laughing or crying. His brother's facial expression was visceral, but the memory of the image was decoupled, from the memory of the sound coming out of his brother's mouth. He realizes then, that laughing and crying are not diametric opposites, and that they are more closely related than anyone had believed. He could cry to close the distance to her laughter, but he does not. He understands that he can never leave the memory of her laughter; it will be something that leaves him.

The man thinks back to that night here with her. They talked about so many things, but he could never figure out what it was exactly in one person, that could make another human being laugh. And her own unbroken laughter was catalytic, it was something that made herself laugh even more. She was an interminable stream of water, whose flow sometimes trickled but never disappeared. Often, she had to cover her mouth with her hand, look away, and take deep breathes. But even then, small ripples still escaped. He was amazed that the thin-ness of her body, that unimpressive volume, could contain so much laughter. In their quieter moments, they really talked.

In the morning, they took the first bus away from Old Changi Road. There was no one else on the bus and she collapsed with her head against his shoulder. But even when she slept, she made small indecipherable noises, noises that almost sounded like she was laughing in her dreams.


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