Sunday, May. 22, 2011 - 12:18 a.m.
She had said that in French, once.
He had blinked at her twice. That was eight years ago.
He presses the light button on his G-shock, filling his face with an electroluminescent blue. Fifteen minutes till the last call to board the plane.
In the floor to ceiling glass in front of him is his half reflection, a thirty year old man leaning into a free massage chair with a backpack strewn at his feet. Beyond that ghostly image is the white bulbous nose of the Airbus that is to take him to the Sudan in fifteen minutes' time. In fifteen hours, he will be in the dusty heat of Khartoum, with a fistful of Sudanese pounds, arguing with an Arab taxi-driver.
The sky around Changi airport is still black.
The seats around him are all empty. A cleaner walks past behind him, pushing the yellow cube of his mop bucket on silent wheels.
He opens the screen of his laptop and goes to Facebook.
Her facebook. Clicks through her profile pictures. Her wall is filled with her own banal comments about where she had dinner recently, interspersed with photographs of her husband and her one-year old toddler on family outings to feed the lugubrious swans at Botanic Gardens.
She had invited him to the wedding. He had politely declined.
Banal. The word stung him like an accusation. It was his word.
He clicks through her albums. There are no photographs which the old her might have taken. No photographs of strong, silent clouds at daybreak, no geometric rows of HDB pillars. There was a photograph she had taken once, of a girl sitting alone at a bus-stop on Lim Chu Kang road at night. She had shown it to him during one of their kopitiam sessions. When he saw the photograph on the LCD screen of her digital camera, he thought that he would have taken it the exact same way as she did - used the same composition, and infused it with the same mood.
They had first met during secondary school, at the Takashimaya basement when the shopping centre first opened; this was where shy SCGS and RGS girls waited to be approached by boys from ACS and (occasionally) RI. They went on two group dates at Sushi-Tei, with its exorbitant $2-per-plate of conveyor-belt sushi, to give moral and psychic support to their respective friends. He had noticed her hands even back then. Years later, they met again at a Association of Singapore Students Conference in Philadelphia, in the buffet queue - how Singaporean she had said.
During summer breaks back in Singapore, they sat at coffeeshops till 3am talking about the brilliance of Wong Kar Wai, debating Singapore's foreign policy failures, and laughing about the Takashimaya days. I was so fearful then, he said, but I miss that fear.
'What do you fear?' she asked. 'Now.'
'Not saving the world.'
She drank the overly-sweet milo Dinosaur. 'Why?'
'Because time is finite.'
'I don't think time is finite. Time is infinite.'
'Why do you say that?'
'Time is infinite because distances can be infinite. It's just that the curved horizon of space-time prevents us from seeing the future, so we think time is finite because our vision is limited. It's analagous to how the curved horizon of the Atlantic hides England from the East Coast of America.' Milo powder speckled the corner of her right lip.
He asked her to explain molecular entropy again.
She pushed the two milo glasses together, till they were almost touching. 'State A.'
She separated them. 'State B.' There was a gap between them, of maybe 5 centimetres. 'Time is what happens when molecules go from one entropic state to another.'
As she became animated her hands would lift off the table and arc in mid-air. Unconscious and elegant. Often he failed to listen to what she was saying and just watched her hands move. They were hypnotic.
When summer ended, they would go back to their own universities in the US. Despite the deep connection he felt towards her (and he suspected it was mutual), they never became more than close friends.
There was that one night in Harlem, near Columbia University where she was studying History. He was walking her back to her dormitory on a cool New York autumn night. The rain had stopped an hour before, bringing a silence to the neighbourhood. It wet the road, turning it into a black half-mirror that made everything - the light from the streetlamps, the brownstone apartments appear sharper to the eye. The scene appeared with greater clarity.
He said, je t'aime.
The two of them walked silently down two blocks. Then she spoke about her childhood in Singapore, and growing up without a mother. She never gave him an answer (at least in a form he could understand then). She just said that line about time and entropy, and smiled at him. Then she walked up the stairs to her apartment. The trace of the smile hung in mid-air. He watched it for a while, and then he left as well. Like molecules, they had drifted apart after that.
Years later, he recognized that scene when he watched Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar Way for the first time. He and she had acted out the scene where Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung walk side-by-side down a rain-slicked Hong Kong street, cut by smooth metal curve of tram-tracks, as Andy Lau's policeman walkie-talkie crackles with Cantonese sporadically. The back of the DVD cover described 'a near romance that is hinted at but never fully materializes'.
He should have studied film at Tisch, but instead he graduated as a doctor.
And he had won. She is just a mother to an anonymous child. Soon she would be worrying about primary school placement and PSLE, while he was on his way to Darfur to work with Medicines Sans Frontiers.
He laughed at his own vanity. Of course he had lost as well. The three years of working at Tan Tuck Sang Hospital had erased the idealistic young man who thought the world could be saved if he only pushed himself harder. He had become like the stroke or brain tumour patients in his ward. Once, a paralyzed patient called out to him, 'I cannot feel anything.' Pricked by the accuracy (or accusation) of that statement, he wrote down in the case-sheet his assessment of the patient (or of himself): Existing, but feeling nothing. He had lost the 24 year old her all those years ago, and now he had lost his own 24 year old self as well.
So he put himself on this sabbatical, disguised as altruism, with a vague goal to rediscover himself, through soothing sandfly-encrusted babies and dressing the machete wounds of scarred mothers.
He closes his eyes as the plane accelerates down the runway towards the sea. In a sense, he was privileged to have seen her change from girl, to woman, to mother, though it is tinged with disappointment at her (and not about her). He had, perhaps not unfairly, expected her to be half a Foreign Minister at this point in time.
But the woman circa 2005 to 2007 was lost. Even she cannot get her own 24 year-old self back. History, which she had studied, can only come to the conclusion that the past is insufficiently accurate or truthful. And it is coloured often by a naive, adolescent ignorance - pure in the sense that it is free from malice.
The Airbus banks, and he feels his centre of gravity list to the side. Quietly, he asks for forgiveness (but from whom?), for being unable to see around that smooth curve of time, at the diffracted light of the future. Through the indestructible plastic window, the orange lights of oil tankers hover over the black sea. The plane climbs sharply into the darkness towards the invisible horizon of the sea, leaving the un-reachable 24 year old bodies of their former selves, and the infinite separation of their distance behind.