We Were Friends

Opposite ends of the bridge:
That flash of recognition, connection,
Immediate, willed disconnection.
The roaring traffic is at once
Amplified and muffled.

Ten feet;
Of the hundreds of countries,
Of the thousands of cities in all the world,
What are you doing in mine?
A chance encounter
Both dreamed of and dreaded.

Eight feet;
Eyes averted? Or perhaps not.
You don’t deliberately avoid
A stranger’s eyes like that.
Just a stranger, I remind myself.

Six feet;
The empty seat on the bus
That I’d claimed as mine,
Next to the curly-haired boy.

Four feet;
Two of the shortest in class,
We used to compare heights.
Basketball matches, friendly rivalry.

Two feet;
Moving in amber,
Memories bleeding sepia.

Parallel lines:
Opposite directions.
Passing by without indication
Of disturbance.

##

A/N: I’ve been having a writer’s block for the longest time, it was getting really frustrating because I was both afraid of coming up with something that didn’t meet my expectations, and of actually starting. So this is going to be the start of my writing project. I’ll call it #NowPlaying. I’m not sure how regularly I can commit to this, but basically, I’ll try to write a response piece regarding a film/show/episode/song/music video I watch.

‘We Were Friends’ was inspired by the music video for the song ‘If ~ また逢えたら.’ I really liked the scene at end in which one of the members of the band and the girl walk right past each other on the bridge, so I wanted to write on that.

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Another December

I had a conversation with my childhood best friend (let’s call her E) a week ago, and at one point she started talking about the things we take for granted. And because we were both feeling vulnerable at that point, because I’d been keeping it to myself for half a year, having her at the other end of the line at that time, both of us being on the topic of taking simple things for granted because they’re so simple, had me spilling everything I’d bottled up since June.

I lost my then-remaining grandparents in June, just three weeks from each other. I know these things happen, they’re not that unexpected, that they would happen sooner or later, but it was just like E had said, they’re part of the many normal, everyday things we take for granted. Family dinners, being fussed over, silly squabbles over the dining table, seeing my grandparents every year when I go back, they’re all things I take for granted because there’s nothing particularly novel about them.

Last year, because I was on exchange, because I was in England for the first time, I told my parents I’d give the annual return to Burma a miss. I’d thought, I go back every year anyway, and I’m not missing much. I see my relatives every year. I’m not missing much. I’ll see my grandparents again next December. It’s just one time. It’s just one more year. I was too busy immersing myself in the freedom and novelty of this new country, this new environment, of travelling solo, of seeing new places, that I took taking the ordinary for granted to new extremes. I’d forgotten that the reason we visit every year is for my grandparents, because we don’t know when the last time will be. I didn’t think December 2015 would be my last time.

The whole of last semester (Year 3 Sem 2), I didn’t see my mum much; not because I was always at school (I wasn’t) but because she had to keep going back to look after her ailing mother. It was a period when I was feeling particularly stressed, having just got back from England and missing it there, not being able to fully enjoy being with my whole family again after 3 months away because one of us was missing, having to come home to a bunch of chores that I had to split with my sister, having to figure out what to cook for the family almost every night when I had been so looking forward to my mum’s cooked dinners whenever I thought about my return to Singapore. Then I thought about the fact that I’d be in Year 4 in August, and how I don’t think I could handle this if my mum is still missing from home, juggling school work and chores and my part-time job. I think I must have grudged my grandmother at that point. I wondered why she couldn’t get better. I wondered why my mum had to keep going back if it didn’t make my grandmother get any better. I resented everything. I wondered if I could last the rest of my time as an undergraduate this way.

Over my year-end break, my parents brought my youngest sister to Burma with them. Very unexpectedly, our cousin dropped the news that our grandfather had passed away, after just a few days of falling ill. He was 94.

Towards the end of June, when our whole family was finally back under the same roof, my mum received a call from our aunt. She had to go back to Burma yet again. After less than a week of being back in Singapore. Of course I was displeased. I wondered again how much longer this would have to go on. My mum said our grandmother’s condition was worsening, but I asked aloud wasn’t it always fluctuating between getting worse and getting better.

The next morning, I woke up to my mum crying. At 7 o’clock, the call came that my grandmother, too, had passed away. I know it’s ridiculous and illogical, but a part of me felt like it was my sentiment the previous night that killed her. I wanted to call someone but I didn’t want to bring in people outside my family. It was 7 o’clock; too early for my friends to be awake during the vacation. I wanted to just cry my heart out, but I didn’t want to, in front of my mum, who’d just lost her own mother. I felt so helpless and useless, that all I could do was accompany my mum to the airport as she went to send her own mother off. More than that, I felt guilty. I’d taken for granted both time and grandparents. They’d been around for so long, a part of me simply assumed they’d always be around. I’d thought I could catch them one last time. I thought those extra two weeks in England couldn’t hurt, because there was always next year. ‘Next year’ didn’t come the way I’d assumed it would.

In December 2016, my grandmother was in Burma, waiting for the granddaughter who never returned. But I don’t want to remember my December of 2017 as the December I don’t have my grandmother waiting for my return. I don’t want to remember her as the fading 82-year-old I never got to say goodbye to, because she didn’t want me to see her in that condition in June, so much that she said she wanted to get better before she saw me again. Even if she never did. And I never got back in time. I never felt sorry in time. Time’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

I don’t want to remember my frustration at my grandmother’s fear of foreigners, because her only experiences with them had been nothing short of unpleasant, having lived through the final years of British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation herself. I don’t want to remember her as ailing, fading, waiting. I want to remember the grandmother who took my cousins in because their parents couldn’t raise them. I want to remember the times when, as a child, I ran into her waiting arms on our annual returns. I want to remember watching Swan Lake with her, because she loved that movie, even if she couldn’t understand English. I want to remember all the things I’d taken for granted about her: I want to remember waking up in the middle of the night to her silhouette as she tried to cover me with an extra blanket, because she didn’t want her granddaughter to be cold, trying hard not to wake me up, I want to remember the times she waited excitedly, counting down the days to my return. I want to remember returning to her waiting for me.

Out of Reach

The familiar slinks, darts, rubs itself
Against my mind’s eye, purrs coyly.
It’s an entire world, living, expanding
Inside me.

I’ve tried time and again to catch it,
To pin down this universe
Onto the blank white before me.
It hisses, swipes at my reaching hands,
Dashes into the dark
Recesses of my mind.

It shows itself, those taunting green eyes glinting,
When I’m least prepared: without pen,
Or in my sleep; slipping through my memory like smoke,
Whenever I can’t pin it down.

I lunge, weapon in hand.
My pen leaves a trail of black,
Glistening like the fur of the creature,
The universe, which I’ve killed into reality:
Broken down into inadequate words.
Disappointing.

Both

I thought I had forever.
I thought you had forever.
Always present, from the beginning of my time,
I’d forgotten your clock was ticking too.

You always appeared timeless that
I’d forgotten you were a Time Being.
I’d dismissed your fear of eternal night:
Knowing you were fading,
Not knowing you were fading away.

Was I wrong in wanting to live,
In seizing what felt like my only chance to
Explore the wider world outside
the bubble of home and Homeland?

The last bond of blood’s been cut:
The only reason for this obligatory pingponging,
Now that the clock – your clock – has stopped ticking.
I’m out of chances, I’m out of time.

If this is what freedom feels like,
Groundless, boundless. Uncertainty.
(Relief? Guilt.)
Then perhaps I don’t want it.
All I want is one more chance,
Or more time. More of your time.
More time for you.
The impossible,
Now that you’re gone.

Unstable

Some say that to come home
You need to take the long route,
Circle the world to realise
Home was the haven of familiarity.
Halfway across the world,
I’d missed home too.

Coming back wasn’t setting down my bag
And blissfully embracing the familiarity
Of ten years in a single place.
It was the realisation that Home
Was no longer where I felt at home.

I thought I’d found it.
I thought I could plant myself
In the soil of spatial stability,
But I was wrong.

What’s it like to have a stable sense of home?
All I want is to uproot myself,
Give myself the illusion of agency
As I set out to look for permanence.

Lost Boys

The call came that fateful day
Which I imagine tugged you miles apart
And pulled you across the sea;
Your duties as mother and daughter in tension.
You became failed mother to us,
But Mother to your nation.
Only half our blood.

Return.
You returned to your motherland,
But couldn’t return as our mother,
The threat of exile looming over your head,
The threat of being a failed daughter.
I guess you were never ours to keep.

Drifting.
Two lost boys with a father fading,
And a mother erased from our family portrait
To emerge the face of her country –
Your face all over the news, on the walls of strangers’ homes,
But missing before the hearth you were needed.

The burden of your family legacy
You chose over the ones left behind –
We couldn’t keep you.
You didn’t belong to us exclusively anymore,
Or perhaps, you never did.

There’s no word to define our state
Of late father and gone mother.
If Peter Pan could whisk us away,
Stop time for us while your life progressed
At the dizzying speed of your kingdom’s,
Perhaps we could return to a faded you,
Your duties done, (you’d wait for us
As we’d waited our youths away)
So we could be your children again.

A/N: I’m not trying to be political here, nor am I passing judgment. This poem was inspired by a conversation my friends and I had with our hosts in Oxford.

Loyalties

This country has claimed me.

When I first arrived, I hated everything:
The misconceptions, the slang
And the struggle of climbing over the barrier
Of the same language distorted, mangled,
Alien and unfamiliar.

I didn’t notice the roots growing,
Borne of memories and the people
Who pulled me over the barrier
I’d built around my heart,
As they wove their way through
Cracks in the concrete soil.

Nine years, and I’ve blended in.
I claim the label that isn’t lawfully mine
According to the rules of legislation.
But the rules of my heart say,
Claim me, as your people did.
Claim me, as I’ve claimed the title
Of one finally settled.

Watch as I put down the home
I’d carried around on my back:
The burden of a child uprooted twice.
My search has ended.

Open Letter

It’s been eleven years since
I sat in that classroom
In front of your desk,
Or even as a part of that un-Tabled Round
Reading out loud:
The only times I’d dared to raise my voice
Above a whisper
Because you gave me strength.

It was just a year,
And what a world you showed us
Uninspired children.
I still feel echoes of that
Fantastical year
Of Middle-earth and Sherlock,
Of Knights and Narnia,
All the more when I might be closest to you
Yet I don’t know where to look.

I still search for you
In books, in poems,
In my favourite teachers,
Wishing one day to see you again
Just to say, ‘Thank you’
In hopes your answer won’t be,
‘Who are you?’

Portrait

The best and worst thing about moving away
Is nobody knows who you are:
Rebirth, reincarnation,
Same body, same memories
But the freedom to build yourself
From scratch.

Vulgar, violent – in the past.
I painted with soft hues,
Bleached out the shameful blackness
Of my tongue, my bruised fists,
Overwritten and sanitised,
Reborn at thirteen.

The spotless portrait
Gathered blemishes with time;
I hid them, overwrit them,
With blotches of pure white,
Caged myself in the portrait I’d painted,
Frozen in my friends’ eyes.

Jet Lag

Adventures in a new continent,
Sudden caresses of the crisp wind,
The crunch of freshly fallen leaves,
And assuming a label that isn’t rightfully mine.

In the middle of a beautiful nowhere,
A town frozen in time and soon to be frozen
As crunchy gold gives way to gloomy blankets
Of snow I might never catch,
The White Christmas I might never get,
I yearn the very thing I’d run away from:

Cramped, crowded, colourful,
Hot and hectic,
Not to mention, convenient,
Familiar.
Friends, family, faces I recognise.

Far away, hours away,
My sunrise and their sunset in tandem,
I reach through my digital screen,
Hear digitized voices,
Mediated through miles unbridgeable
As the gaping hole where my heart used to be.
I must have left it at home.