He flings the pair of earrings out the car window, and together with it, the last remnants of his first love.
“Happy birthday, Ai Ling.”
“Thank you. The roses are so beautiful. You must have spent a lot on them.”
“No, it’s okay. Come over and make a wish before we cut the cake.”
Cheerily, Ai Ling sat next to the small coffee table where the blueberry cheesecake – her favourite – was being decorated by Steve.
“There,” said Steve, “two large candles and a small one, right?”
“It should be a secret,” Ai Ling responded with a pout.
Steve just loves the way she feigned annoyance, so much so that sometimes he would risk real annoyance by teasing her into it.
“Oh, I have a present for you.”
“What is it?”
“Open it and take a look.”
It was a pair of earrings with heart-shaped diamonds dangling from silver-plated shepherd’s hooks.
“… this pair of earrings…”
The week before, Steve had paced around the premises of a costume jewellery shop along Orchard Road for what could easily have been eternity. The salesgirl must have been wondering if he would ever step into the store, otherwise she might have to consider calling the police, as young and innocent the chap might look, there’s no guarantee that he wasn’t planning to rob the shop (even though a real jewellery shop would represent a better kill).
When he eventually did enter the shop, both parties heaved a collective sigh of relief. For Steve, it was decision time.
“Do you like it?” inquired Steve, all the while looking at Ai Ling’s face for traces of disappointment.
“Yes,” Ai Ling said without hesitation.
Deep inside, Steve breathed another sigh of relief.
“It’s beautiful,” she continued, oblivious to the turmoil going through Steve’s mind.
“But how did you know…” her voice trailed off, as she turned and looked straight into his eyes.
“Remember we went out on Valentine’s Day about two months ago and we saw something like this at Tiffany’s? I could tell you really like it.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” she admonished.
Steve started to blush slightly. “Actually, it’s not the same thing. The diamonds on this pair are just cheap glass. But… but,” he stammered, “they’re the only ones I can afford… now.”
“They are lovely,” Ai Ling placed her hand on Steve’s as assurance.
Steve bowed his head.
What happened next took him by surprise. Ai Ling motioned her body across the coffee table and zeroed in on his lips.
It was his first kiss.
David inserted his key, turned the doorknob and entered the room. Startled by what he saw, he nevertheless walked past the coffee table where the cake laid unfinished and placed the teddy bear on the study table noisily.
At once, Ai Ling woke up from her sleep.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Hey, this is my mother’s apartment, remember?”
“So? You can just come in without knocking?”
“Well,” David pointed towards the teddy bear, “happy birthday.”
Nodding in the direction of Steve, he continued, “Who’s that? Your new lover?”
Ai Ling stared at David momentarily before she turned to glance at Steve, who’s apparently still in a slumber. Unbeknownst to her, Steve had awoken since the conversation started.
“It’s none of your business,” Ai Ling snapped.
“Whoa… you don’t have to get so agitated. I’m only here to collect the rental on my mum’s behalf.”
“I’m a little bit tight this week. I’ll bring the money to your mother next week once I get my pay.”
“Next week? Ha! You’ve already dragged for one week. Don’t always let my mum grumble at me.”
Changing his tone slightly, David continued, “Look, my mum wouldn’t be renting the room to you so cheaply if she’d known you’ll be bringing strange men around here…”
“What’s the big deal? The most I move out of this place, okay? You’re the one who insisted that I move here. You think I’m willing to?”
“Oh… so it’s my fault?” David sneered. “Where in the CBD area can you rent a room for three hundred bucks? If it’s not because I see that you’re so pitiful, I wouldn’t have convinced my mum to keep renting the room to you. No wonder she complains that you’re such a bitch.”
“Who is she to call names?” Ai Ling was on the verge of shouting by now. “It’s not like I’m not paying the rent. She’s the one who’s being bitchy about it!”
“Hey, cool it. If you’re not happy, by all means move out. You’re the one who dragged the payment, okay!”
David raised his right hand and placed it on Ai Ling’s left cheek before he continued, “And don’t you dare insult my mum, because I will be angry…”
With one swift motion, David swung his right hand across Ai Ling’s face. “Understand?”
At the sound of impact, Steve sprung to his feet and grabbed hold of David’s shirt.
“What is this?” David sniggered. “Hero to the rescue?”
Steve tightened his grip and pushed David a step back.
Steve stood unflinching.
“I repeat. Let go.”
“Steve, let him go,” Ai Ling cried while holding her left cheek. “This is a matter between us. Don’t get yourself involved.”
Seeing that Steve was still gripping David’s shirt, Ai Ling repeated her plea, “Please, Steve, let him go.”
Reluctantly, Steve released his grip.
“David, please leave the room. Now!”
David turned and walked towards the door. “Move out! I want you to move out immediately,” David exclaimed as he slammed the door behind him.
Steve grabbed a handful of tissues and motioned it toward Ai Ling.
“Steve, I’m very sorry. You better go home and get changed. You still have classes today.”
“I’m not going. I’ll accompany you to look for another place to stay.”
“….” Ai Ling looked into Steve’s eyes. “Thank you.”
“Ai Ling, I bought you dinner. Come and get it.”
“What did you buy again?” asked Ai Ling, as she arranged the last batch of CDs on the rack.
“It’s the new Mozzarella burger from Burger King. I know you like cheese…”
“No,” Ai Ling interrupted, “that’s not what I’m referring to.”
“Oh… you mean this. It’s an electric airport. You just moved here and there are many things you need, so I thought…”
“You shouldn’t have. It’s too expensive,” Ai Ling interrupted again. “Where did you get all the money?”
“It’s okay. I have some spare cash from my allowances. If I don’t have enough, I can always make up an excuse and ask my mom for more.”
Ai Ling frowned. The last thing she wanted was for him to lie.
Sensing her displeasure, Steve quickly motioned Ai Ling to the study cum dining table for the food. “Here’s your Coke.”
“So how? Can you finish unpacking tonight?”
“I guess so. I don’t have much stuff anyway.”
“Tell you what, why don’t we go to Jack’s Place this weekend. I’ll give you a treat to celebrate your move to a new home.”
“No need. What is there to celebrate? Don’t spend your money unnecessarily.”
“Well, you got away from that nasty landlord and her son. Isn’t that something to celebrate?”
For a moment, Ai Ling fell silent.
“You are really nice to your friends…” She turned and took a sip of her drink before she continued, “I have never met anyone who’s as gentle and considerate as you are. Whoever becomes your girlfriend must be very lucky…”
“Really?” Steve blushed. “I certainly hope so.”
Deep down, Steve was thinking to himself: “How silly! Aren’t you my girlfriend?”
Ai Ling fell silent again.
Steve finally noticed. “What’s wrong?”
“The landlord’s son, that guy called David you saw the other day, he was my ex-boyfriend… I met him two years ago when I came to Singapore to study and work part-time… No one has treated me that good before; he even persuaded his mother to rent the room in their apartment to me very cheaply so I don’t have to worry about my school fees.
“You know, you’re in a foreign country and you hardly know anybody… I was immediately taken in by his charm and fell in love with him… so much so that I gave him everything…”
Ai Ling was beginning to sob slightly.
Steve took her hand in his and said, “Are you sure you want to talk about this?”
“I’m alright,” she took a deep breath and continued. “Later I discovered he was actually a playboy. Apart from myself, he had a few other girlfriends. And worse of all, he didn’t even attempt to disguise his relationships with the other girls.”
Steve felt a tightening of her grip. He moved his other hand over and patted the back of her hand gently.
“A few times I wanted to break off the relationship with him, but I just couldn’t leave him. Besides, the salary I earned from my part-time job was so meagre then that I couldn’t possibly afford to find another place to rent and finance my study at the same time… I was so torn apart by the realities of my situation and the heart-wrenching affair that I faced. Whenever I brought up the issue of ending our relationship, he would become abusive…”
Now it was Steve’s turn to tighten his grip, but Ai Ling ignored it and continued, “About half a year ago, I found out that I had become pregnant. I confronted him, but he just… he just shirked his responsibility. His mother even accused me of being promiscuous…”
Ai Ling took another deep breath. So did Steve, but probably to calm his anger.
“I was so helpless then. But I finally decided to give up on him. I quitted school, borrowed some money from a colleague and went for an abortion… It was a painful decision, one that completely shook me out of my naivety. Despite that setback, I promised myself that I would be strong… I also told myself never to believe in love again…”
That last sentence almost knocked Steve out like a killer punch.
“But what’s the point of saying all that now?” Ai Ling sighed. “You wouldn’t look down on me, would you?”
“Of course not!” Steve responded as soon as he recovered his senses. “That bastard treated you so badly… I’ll make him pay for it one day.”
“Steve… don’t! Like you said, I already got away from him. It doesn’t matter now.”
“You’re too kind-hearted, Ai Ling.”
“Let’s finish the food before everything gets cold.”
Funny how time flies when you’re having fun. It’s been two weeks since Ai Ling settled in her new home. In between, Steve visited her almost every other day despite having to take a half-hour bus ride to her place, and each time he popped by, he would invariably bring some stuff – bread, biscuits, instant noodles (much as he discouraged Ai Ling from making such unhealthy food her staple, he decided to add these on the list just in case), and of course, cheesecake – for Ai Ling.
The day before, it was Labour Day, and Steve took the opportunity to bring Ai Ling to the zoo for some photo-op with Ah Meng (or so he claimed, though the real intention was to have photos of them taken together). For Ai Ling, the entire experience wasn’t exactly earth shattering because the zoo back at her hometown in Malacca was, in her opinion, more impressive. But she refused to disappoint Steve, as he seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. She quietly wondered to herself whether this was actually his first trip to the zoo. The night safari, which they stayed on for, however, was something else for Ai Ling. With a natural apprehension for darkness, Ai Ling clung on to Steve like no super glue could while they walked about, and the “victim” in this instance was more than happy for them to be inseparable.
Now the moment of truth has arrived. Steve had collected the printouts from the three rolls of film he put through his camera, and together with Ai Ling, they were “appraising” the photos at her place.
“That’s a good shot!”
“Yeah, but I guess some of the other photos could have been better,” Steve apologised.
“No, you’re quite good at it,” Ai Ling assured him.
“Well, I’m still learning about photography. Next time I’ll do better. Maybe… you can be my model,” he suggested.
“Ok,” she answered without hesitation. “I think you may have a talent for this, you know?”
“Really?” Steve could hardly contain his joy. If someone had seen him now, he/she would have advised him to keep his grin in check, as his eyes were disappearing under the tremendous effort to suppress his overwhelming urge to break into a silly smile.
“You know what?” he finally managed to divert his own attention, “This place is too shoddy and out-of-the-way for you.”
“Well, it’s less than what I paid for previously. I don’t need much for a roof above my head.”
“By the way,” Ai Ling interrupted. “The landlord said you are moving into the room opposite, is that true?”
“Yeah. And I had a quarrel with my mom over that.”
“Don’t move out from your family. It’s tough to live on your own, do you know that?”
“Not to worry. I’m already old enough. Don’t you think I should learn to be a bit independent?”
“Yes, but I will feel bad if this causes a rift between you and your parents…”
“It’s alright. Besides, I’ve already paid the deposits. And… this way, I can take care of you.”
“Don’t be silly. Am I worth it for you to go through such troubles?”
“No trouble at all,” Steve blushed. “My place is too noisy anyway and I can’t concentrate on my studies at home, so that’s why I decided to move out.”
“Liar.” Ai Ling muttered beneath her breath.
Steve, however, did not catch her response. He was simply glad that she didn’t pursue the issue further. “It is definitely worth it, Ai Ling,” he said to himself, “because I love you.”
Ai Ling works as a sales promoter in a music CD shop downtown. The first time Steve saw her, he had just skipped his philosophy class and was browsing at the shop for his favourite S.E.N.S. album. Ever since then, he developed a routine of asking for hard-to-find music albums whenever she was around.
Eventually she noticed.
“I’m looking for the album ‘Future’ by S.E.N.S.,” Steve turned to ask Ai Ling, who was arranging some new CDs nearby.
“I thought you just bought that two weeks’ ago?” came the reply.
Steve was at once red-faced for being caught out with a lie, yet delighted that she remembered.
“Oh, that CD was faulty, so I thought of buying another one,” he offered with hesitation.
“Why don’t you bring it back and I’ll exchange it for you,” Ai Ling suggested innocently.
An awkward silence reigned.
“Actually,” Steve hesitated, “the CD is ok…”
He could sense her eyeing him suspiciously, and his ears burned with embarrassment.
“I just used that as an excuse to strike up a conversation…”
For a moment, he imagined she had let slipped a faint smile.
Before he could finish his sentence, she interrupted, “I knock off at eight. If you can wait, maybe we can go for a late dinner.”
Steve’s jaw almost hit the ground. “Yeah… yeah… I’ll wait!”
He’s 18 and she’s 21. He often worries that she might find him a tad immature. That is why Steve always tries to act beyond his age. And becoming independent from home is the logical first step. Moving out to live on his own presents the perfect opportunity to get the ball rolling.
“What is it at home that you don’t like? Why must you move out? Everything you need is here. If you stay on your own, you have to wash your own clothes. You have never done your own laundry before.”
“It’s ok, mom. I’ll bring my clothes back every weekend and you can wash them for me.”
“But… who’s going to iron your shirt? Who’s going to cook for you?”
“Look, mom, you’re nagging non-stop. How can I concentrate on my studies at home when you keep nagging at me?”
“Oh, so it’s your mom’s fault now? How can you study when you always chat on the phone all night? And if you’re serious about your studies, why do you always skip classes?”
“It’s not easy to find a place to rent, mom. I need time to view the location, check out the facilities and make sure everything is all right. At most I’ll just get an MC from the family doctor tomorrow.”
“Well, you better make sure you’re really moving out to concentrate on your studies.”
“Don’t worry, mom. I won’t do anything silly. Anyway, I’ll come back often to visit you.”
“You’d better. And remember to call home first so I can prepare your favourite dishes.”
“Oh, by the way,” Steve turned around and added, “my rental is $250 so I’ll just need you to give me $700 every month to cover all my expenses.”
“$700? So much? You’d better talk to your dad first. If he agrees, then I’ll give it to you.”
“Oh, mom, can’t you just talk to dad on my behalf? Do you want me to work part-time to pay for my bills? How can I concentrate on my studies then?”
“Who said you can move out?” A voice barked at the door.
Startled, Steve turned around to see his dad standing by the door. He was a tall man, about fifty, strongly built, with a stern look on his face. In contrast, Steve’s mom was a picture of lovingness.
“Don’t give him any money, and see how he survives outside!”
Steve was silent.
“Concentrate on your studies?” his dad continued, “Whose leg are you trying to pull? You’re leaving home just because of a girl. What bullshit studies are you talking about?”
“If you don’t want to give any money, that’s fine! At most I’ll work part-time to earn my keep. Worse come to worse, I’ll just give up that bullshit studies, like you said,” Steve retorted defiantly.
Without warning, Steve’s dad swung his hand across his son’s face. “Go! And if you have the guts, don’t ever come back!”
“What are you doing?” Steve’s mom cried, holding on to his other half, restraining him.
“Fine…” Steve exploded, “even if I am starving outside and have to beg for a living, I won’t come back and ask you for favours!”
With that, Steve trotted out the door. His mom quickly followed, leaving his partner behind fuming.
“Son… wait!” Steve stopped in his track.
“Don’t make your dad angry, for goodness sake! Why can’t you talk things over with him properly?” Steve’s mom pleaded.
“Who’s making who angry now? I won’t beg him for anything, not over my dead body!”
“Alright then. Here’s some money for you. Don’t go and look for work outside.”
“No need. Who wants his filthy money?” Steve stubbornly refused.
“Then do you have enough savings to keep yourself going?”
Sensing that there was no other way to salvage the situation, Steve’s mom quietly urged, “You must come home to visit me when you dad is not around…”
“I will. Goodbye, mom.”
As Steve turned and walked away, his mom called out after him, “If you need money anytime, call home. I still have some personal savings…”
Steve continued walking, tears welling in his eyes.
Three days later, at the behest of Ai Ling, Steve accompanied her to her old apartment to return her keys.
When they reached the building, Ai Ling said, “You’d better wait for me downstairs.”
“You sure you don’t want me to go up together?”
“It’s okay. I won’t take long.”
Ai Ling turned the doorknob of her former room and was surprised to see David sitting at the edge of the bed holding a teddy bear. Or rather, the teddy bear that he had brought for Ai Ling’s birthday about a month ago. Ai Ling had intentionally left it behind when she moved.
“How’s your new place?”
“Couldn’t be better without you,” Ai Ling replied sarcastically.
“Here are the room and door keys.” She threw them onto the bed.
Ignoring her hostility, David continued, “You don’t want the teddy bear I gave you?”
“Still angry with me huh?” David muttered under his breath. “I’m sorry, Ai Ling. It’s my mum’s idea to ask you to move out…”
Ai Ling would have nothing of this and turned to exit the room. Suddenly, David sprung to the door and used his hand to slam it closed.
“What do you want?” exclaimed Ai Ling.
“Give me your new phone number,” asked David. “Okay?”
“Whatever for? I don’t have one. Now, get out of my way.”
“Can you just listen to me first?”
Ai Ling turned her face.
“My mum brought me up alone. I’m everything to her and she’s afraid of losing me to someone else. Do you understand? Give me a bit of time. I’ll try to persuade my mum to accept you. Even if she doesn’t agree, I still want you to be with me…”
“Why are you telling me all this now?” Ai Ling cut him short. “Go tell that to all your girlfriends.”
“But I only like you. I’m not serious about the other girls.”
Without warning, David moved forward and hugged Ai Ling. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down. Please forgive me…”
Between sobs, David continued, “I only realised how important you are to me when you left. Please give me one more chance…”
“Isn’t it too late to say that now?” Ai Ling said, as she gently pushed David away.
“Please…” David dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around Ai Ling’s legs. “Don’t leave me…”
Ai Ling placed her hand on his head and said, “It’s over, David…”
With that, Ai Ling freed herself and walked out of the room, leaving David still sobbing away. Quietly, she wiped away the tears that finally escaped her eyes.
“What took you so long?” Steve inquired when Ai Ling appeared from the lift.
“Nothing.” Ai Ling answered noncommittally.
“What’s wrong? Did that bastard…”
“No, it’s okay. Don’t make wild guesses. Let’s go. You still have classes to attend.”
As they walked together to the bus stop, Steve can’t help but wondered: Is everything really okay? Is it just my imagination or are those tears that she’s trying to hide? But why?
The walk to the bus stop was only five minutes, but to Steve, it seemed almost an eternity.
“Yes! Thousand two will be enough.” Steve said excitedly on the phone.
It was one of those routine phone calls that Steve made to update her mom, and at the same time, ask for money.
“Don’t worry, mom. Everything is fine…. She’s fine too…. Yes, I’ll bring her to see you once my exams are over…Where? Mouth Restaurant? Okay… I’ve got to go now, bye mom.”
Steve hung up the phone and walked over to the opposite room.
“Ai Ling, good news! My mom is giving me a sum of money at the end of the month. I’ll be able to get you a computer then.”
“Why don’t you get it for yourself? You’ll need it more than I do for your studies. If I need a computer, I’ll buy one when I get my pay.”
Sensing her displeasure, Steve quickly changed tact. “Alright, alright. Whatever you say. Oh, by the way, my mom says she wants to see you. She suggested that we meet for lunch at the Mouth Restaurant next Friday.”
“Hmm… why didn’t you ask me first? I haven’t even said I’ll go.”
“Why? You have something on next Friday?”
“No. But what if your mom asks me about my relationship with you? You’re not planning to introduce me as your girlfriend, are you?”
Just then, the phone in the living room rang. Steve went to pick it up.
“Hello? Ai Ling? Hang on a minute.” Steve beckoned to Ai Ling. “It’s for you.”
“Hello, Ai Ling here. Who’s… oh… Mrs Tang…”
Behind her, Steve stood wondering: “Why? Why can’t I introduce you as my girlfriend?”
“Yes, I’ll go over right away.” Ai Ling noted down some information and hung up the phone.
“What’s the matter?” Steve asked. “You’re going out? It’s already so late and it’s pouring outside.”
“David tried to kill himself. He’s now in hospital. I have to go and take a look.”
“What has that got to do with you? Why do you bother, after what he has done to you? He isn’t dead right?”
“How could you say such things?”
“You haven’t forgotten about him, right?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I must go and take a look.” She went into her room and took out her small foldable umbrella and windbreaker.
Steve stared at her in silence. Finally, he said, “I’ll go with you.”
As soon as Ai Ling and Steve entered the hospital, the pungent odour of anaesthetic and antiseptic got them by the throat. It was late in the evening and the lobby was deprived of human presence, save for a couple of patients waiting for their turns to be served. Ai Ling hurried over to the reception, following the trail of raindrops left behind by wet umbrellas, her heart pounding every step of the way. The receptionist informed them through a weary smile that David was warded on the third floor.
“Thanks for accompanying me here. I’ll go up by myself. You still have exams tomorrow. You’d better go home and study. Don’t wait for me,” Ai Ling said, as she handed over the umbrella to Steve. “Here, take this. Don’t catch a cold.”
Steve watched Ai Ling silently as she moved across to the lift lobby. His eyes lingered until she disappeared behind the lift door.
“What happened, Mrs Tang?”
“David came home in the middle of last night, drunk, and he locked himself up in the toilet and vomited. At first, I thought he just drank too much. But after a while, I became worried and knocked on the door. There was no answer. So I forced open the door and there he was, lying on the floor with blood gushing from his wrist…”
Mrs Tang shook her head, as if to erase the shocking image from her memory. “The doctors said the cuts were deep, so they had to perform microscopic surgery and gave him 2,000cc of blood. If everything goes well, he will be alright in a few days.”
Ai Ling could say nothing but nodded her head apologetically.
“Oh… I found this letter in his pocket. It’s addressed to you. I got your phone number when I called your workplace. That’s how I managed to contact you.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs Tang. All this is because of me…”
“Then you’d better stick around and let him see you when he wakes up.” Mrs Tang let slip a sigh and continued, “This stupid son of mine made me worried sick since last night…”
“Maybe you should go home and rest, aunty. Let me take care of him tonight.”
Mrs Tang was about to pack up and leave when David stirred.
Ai Ling and Mrs Tang hurried over to his side.
“Lie down. Lie down. Don’t get up.”
“I’m sorry, Ai Ling. I was drunk and…”
“Why must you do something so silly, David…”
“I don’t know. I just missed you so much.”
Ai Ling reached out her hand and held David’s gently.
At the entrance of the ward, Steve stood and watched the whole scene in stunned silence. It began to dawn on him why Ai Ling had always seemed so near yet so far. He had followed Ai Ling up to the third floor hoping to bring her away with him. Now he felt redundant. Without saying a word, Steve retraced his steps back to the ground floor.
Outside, the rain continued to pour. The raindrops fell on Steve, piercing through his skin like prickly needles. His umbrella remained unopened.
Sometimes I wonder. I wonder if you still have him in your heart. From the moment you put that distance between us, I begin to wonder whether you’re just using me to spite him. You said you’ve parted way with him, that’s why I’m together with you now. But I wonder if I’m actually the third party…
It was just after ten in the morning when Ai Ling opened the door to her room. She walked in quietly and saw Steve resting his head on her desk, his textbooks scattered around the tiny space. Ai Ling took her sweater off the hook on the wall and went over to place it around his shoulder. Steve stirred.
“Oh, you’re back,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“Didn’t you have exams today? Why aren’t you at school yet?” Ai Ling asked.
Steve glanced at his watch. “Gosh, it’s already ten-thirty! The exam is almost over…”
Turning around to face Ai Ling, he continued, “That son-of-a-bitch is not dead, right?”
“Why must you always curse him like that?” Ai Ling replied, annoyed.
“That coward used suicide to gain your sympathy, don’t you see? Why are you still so stupid to fall for his trick?”
“Alright, I’m stupid. I’m not going to argue with you.” With that, she walked to her cupboard and started to pull out several sets of clothing.
“Where are you packing your stuff to?”
“None of your business. I’m eloping. Happy?”
Steve was momentarily stumped by the rebuke.
“Don’t I have the right to ask about your affairs?”
“Steve, I know you like me a lot. And I know you treat me very well. But David attempted suicide because of me. Shouldn’t I take upon some responsibilities?”
“What responsibilities? You didn’t ask him to go and kill himself. Why don’t you just come straight and say you still love him?”
“Yes, I do love him. Even though he doesn’t treat me as well as you do, I still love him. Okay?”
“So now you’re telling the truth. You’ve been leading me on from the start…”
“That’s not true! I didn’t lead you on. I wanted to be with you, but… I can’t control myself. I keep thinking about David ever since… Steve, you are very good to me. Too good. And I feel pressurised. I think I’m just not comfortable with your kindness.”
“Oh… so I’m wrong to be good to you?”
“No, it’s not that you’re wrong. Maybe I don’t have the privilege to accept your love. I’m sorry. If there’s a chance in future, I’ll make it up to you for this.”
“Make it up to me?” Steve raised his voice, “Can you ever? With what?”
“With what? Take me then. Is that okay for you?” Ai Ling said, as her hands motioned to unbutton her blouse.
“What you are doing?” Steve grabbed her hands, his voice choked with emotions. “Don’t insult my feelings for you!”
With that, Steve stormed out of Ai Ling’s room and into his own. The door banged shut behind him.
“Steve!” Ai Ling pounded the door. There was no response.
“Steve… I’m sorry. I hurt your feelings… You are a good guy. I really don’t think I’m good enough for you. You will find another girl who deserves your love more in future. David needs someone to take care of him. I’m going to stay with him for a while. I know he may not treat me better from now on, but… maybe it’s just my luck. Since you’ve been with me, you have spent too much time away from your studies. And I even caused you to fall out with your father. It’s all my fault. I don’t deserve to be treated so well. I’m really sorry. I don’t know how to put it across to you, but I wish you will forgive me.”
After a moment’s silence, Ai Ling continued, “I’ve got to go now. Please take good care of yourself.”
On the other side of the door, Steve heard Ai Ling’s gentle footsteps faded along the corridor. “Oh… please don’t go…” he pounded his fist repeatedly against the wall until the knuckles became raw. Try as he might, the physical damage did not overwhelm his emotional distress. Eventually he slumped to the floor, held his head in his hands and allowed the tears to flow.
When it rains, it pours. Steve had been confining himself to his room ever since the monsoon came. The stench of half-finished cup noodles filled the air, but he couldn’t care less. If anyone came within striking distance of him now, he or she would have thought that Steve had just crawled out from a shit hole.
In the distance, the distinctive ringing of the phone can be heard. “Could it be Ai Ling?” Steve wondered, but his splitting headache almost persuaded him to lie down again.
With reluctance, he sauntered out to the living room to pick up the phone.
“Hello, is that Steve? It’s your mom. Why haven’t you been to school for so many days? Your dean just called home to look for you. Are you okay?”
“I’m alright, mom…”
“Your dean wants me to drop by school on Monday with an explanation because you’ve skipped so many classes without a valid reason. You’d better come along too, or they might dismiss you.”
“I know. Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, don’t worry. Just the weather.”
“Did you go and see the doctor?”
“Then you better rest. I’ll get your dad to pick you up on Monday.”
“Ok. Bye mom.” With that, Steve hung up the phone.
As he rose to get back to his room, a deadly nausea came upon him. For a moment, he has the greatest difficulty in keeping his hold.
That stupid headache, it’s killing me! If I die now, will Ai Ling cry for me?
The last few steps towards his room were a frightful struggle against giddiness. Several times his head swam, and he felt all the sensations of falling. Just when Steve thought he had his hand firmly on the doorknob, the whole world came crashing down on him. Then, for a time, he fell unconscious.
After what seemed like eternity, the main door opened. In walked Ai Ling and David.
“On my god, Steve! Why are you lying on the floor?” Ai Ling exclaimed, as she rushed over to help Steve up.
“You’re back…” Steve stirred slightly.
“What’s wrong? Oh mind… you smell horrible! Come, let me help you to your room.”
“I’m so glad to see you…” As he eyes caught the sight of David, he blurted: “Bastard! Why are you here? To snatch Ai Ling away from me?”
David was silent.
“Oh c’mon. Get into bed now and take a rest,” urged Ai Ling. “I’ll prepare some food for you.”
“Ai Ling, stay with me…”
“Don’t say anymore. You’d better rest.”
Steve tried to fight his sleep demons, but his resistance was futile.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Ai Ling whispered, as she tucked Steve in bed. “Next Monday, I’ll be moving over to David’s place. Thanks for taking care of me all this while…”
Hearing no response, Ai Ling beckoned to David. “He’s fallen asleep. Let’s not disturb him.”
It must be the incessant rain, for Steve awoke soon after to the call of nature. As he opened his door, he could hear a soft laughter down the corridor, in the direction of the bathroom. He strained his ears and realised that the laughter was unmistakably Ai Ling’s.
“She’s still around?” Steve wondered, and immediately quickened his pace, his pulse racing at the same time.
When he turned the corner towards the bathroom on the left, he heard Ai Ling’s voice…
“Stop fooling around lah! Raise your hands and don’t get the bandage all wet…”
The bathroom door was not closed entirely, and Steve, fearing the worst, risked a peek. Through the misty bathroom mirror, he could see the faint reflection of Ai Ling and David standing naked under the shower. David had both his bandaged hands raised in the air, and Ai Ling was gently soaping his body.
“God…” Steve muffled his cry, and his eyes welled up under the effort. “Help me…”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Goh. Please give my son another chance. He has not been himself ever since he fell in love…” Steve’s mom pleaded.
“He has skipped so many lectures that the school is almost about to dismiss him. I would very much like to help you, but we do have a policy for minimum attendance here.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Can the school not dismiss my son and let him repeat his studies next year?”
“I guess that’s an option. Steve is a bright kid. This is the final semester for him and it would be a pity if he were to drop out of school like that…”
Turning towards Steve, Mr. Goh continued: “Now, young man. Don’t indulge in courtship until you’ve lost your sense of judgement. Take this opportunity before your new school term starts to do some soul-searching. Understand?”
Steve nodded his head in silence.
“In that case, Mrs Chia, please follow me to the admin office to fill out the necessary forms. Since it’s Monday, we’ll let him end his semester today.”
Monday… today is Monday?
Without a moment of hesitation, Steve dashed out of the office.
“Steve!” The two adults shouted in unison.
“Steve! Where are you going? Come back!” Steve’s mom cried as she rushed out after her son.
Today is Monday…
Steve ran up the flight of stairs to his apartment in record speed. With his heart pounding like hoofs on horseracing turf, Steve entered the house and proceeded to open the door to Ai Ling’s room.
It was empty.
Well, almost. Apart from a pair of earrings that laid on the table, which Steve immediately recognised. Underneath was a piece of paper.
Steve picked up the earrings and took a long hard look at the heart-shaped diamonds. Cheap glass, to be precise. For a moment, he was lost in thoughts.
Finally, he woke from his reverie and unfolded the piece of paper. It was a note written by Ai Ling to him.
I’ve moved back to David’s place. Thank you for taking care of me all this while. I’m afraid I cannot repay your kindness ever. Hope you will not hate me for leaving. Goodbye, my friend.
All the best to your studies,
P.S. I shouldn’t have accepted your gift in the first place. This pair of earrings should be given to another girl who’s more deserving. I’m not entitled to keep it anymore.
Steve folded the note neatly and tucked it into his pocket. Slowly and quietly, he turned and walked out the door…
It was another Monday morning. The gloomy sky finally cleared, much like Steve’s love life. One week had gone by since he last stepped into the apartment where he once shared happy moments with Ai Ling. There were also unpleasant memories of course, but Steve found it hard to let these negate his feelings for Ai Ling. The teasing smile when he first saw her at the CD shop, the fleeting kiss on her 21st birthday, the zoo outing, the times they spent watching TV together… all these seemed etched forever in his memory.
“This is the last box,” said Steve’s mom.
“You sure?” asked his dad.
His partner nodded.
“Alright, let’s get into the car. Son?”
“Ok.” Steve snapped out of his thoughts and jumped into the passenger seat.
“I’m sorry, dad…”
“It’s alright son,” Steve’s dad interrupted. “Forget it. What’s done is done. Since you can’t change how things went, you might as well learn to accept reality. Try not to think too much about it and you will not feel so burdened by those memories.”
Steve stared out the car window, as if not listening.
“Maybe it won’t be easy for you now,” his dad continued, “but you can start afresh, if you are willing.”
Steve turned around and looked at his dad.
“Perhaps this might be a blessing in disguise. We never know the true value of our moments until they have undergone the test of memory. That’s the price you pay for growing up…”
Steve remained silent.
“Son, get a grip of yourself and welcome home. But don’t bring your misery back along with you, ok?”
From within his pocket, Steve took out something carefully wrapped in his handkerchief. It was a pair of earrings with heart-shaped diamonds dangling from silver-plated shepherd’s hooks. Slowly, Steve wound down the car window.
— The End —
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